board77

The Last Homely Site on the Web
It is currently Mon 24 Apr , 2017 7:04 pm

All times are UTC




Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 89 posts ]  Go to page Previous  1, 2, 3, 4, 5  Next
Author Message
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu 11 Oct , 2007 8:22 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Cerimë 27th

Éowyn watched as rain came down in sheets across the balcony, accompanied by gusty winds that made the palm fronds in the garden below shake. She had woken this morning to long, low rumbles of thunder, and the day had hardly improved since. The rain had stopped for a few hours, though the thick gray clouds had lingered on until this new storm blew up. She had not slept well last night, frequently turning and trying to find a comfortable position. She felt the lack of sleep weighing on her as well as a growing irritation. If today went well, nothing would annoy her to the point she could not control her irritation anymore. However, today was already shaping up to be the opposite.

Having ignored her all of yesterday, al-Jahmîr had summoned her to lunch with him today. In the note, he had included a snide remark about how he did not want her to get bored since the weather was not ideal for her daily visit to the stables. Éowyn had ripped up the small sheet of paper without reading the rest.

“I should get a cloak and go anyway, just to spite him,” she had said as Miliani brushed and arranged her hair.

“It's too wet outside,” Miliani chided gently. “You might catch cold.”

“Ithilien is much cooler at this time of year, and I've yet to catch cold because of it,” she replied, shaking her head slightly. She heard the girl click her tongue as she lost her grip on a swatch of hair.

Now, as she watched the rain, she second-guessed her thoughts. She would not have gone to her own stables in Ithilien in weather like this unless she had to, and in addition, she had discovered that the stones here grew quite slippery after a rain when she had gone onto her balcony for a few minutes between the rain storms. Lately she had found her balance to be slightly off, and she did not need to have a slip and fall to give the healers any ideas about how much activity she should be allowed to have. Teherin either would have had her on bedrest by now or would have been watching her keenly for an excuse to put her to bed.

A knock on the door broke into Éowyn's thoughts, and she knew even before Miliani answered it that it would be one of the Snake's servants, coming to fetch her for the meal. She walked slowly down the familiar hallways, in no rush to meet her host. Passing a room, she glanced in to see some housemaids mopping up water that had seeped in under the window. They were laughing about some joke or another as they wrung their mops out into buckets.

All too soon, Éowyn found herself entering al-Jahmîr's quarters. She wrinkled her nose at the thick scent of incense hanging in the air. She did not recall him having burned any during her previous visits. He was sitting at his table, reading the first of several pages in his hand. His eyes darted up when she entered but immediately flicked back to what he was reading. Hemade no other acknowledgment of her presence. Éowyn took a seat and looked over the platters and trays already on the table, though nothing appealed to her at first glance. She noted a small plate next to al-Jahmîr that had a few slices of bread and what looked like a mixture of olive oil and grated cheese on one side. Without looking away, al-Jahmîr dipped one of the bread slices in the mixture and ate it.

Éowyn refrained from shaking her head. She would rather put up with his silence than his conversation, and she was not going to go out of her way to encourage him to speak. She began putting together her own plate, eyeing some sliced pears and almonds. She ate in silence for several minutes before beginning to feel slightly irritated that the Snake had called her here only to ignore her again. He could have achieved the same effect by leaving her alone in her rooms. But he knows that you'd have been content not having to deal with his presence, she thought wryly. This way he can at least mock you without having to say a word.

Outside the rain had softened to a light drizzle, occasionally breaking completely. The clouds had lightened as well, andoccasionally a sea gull drifted past a window, crying plaintively for something to eat. Éowyn wondered if the sun would come out later in the afternoon. If it did, she might try going down to the stables for awhile. Not to ride. She did not want to deal with all the mud and standing water that would surely be lingering.

As she cut into a piece of fish, al-Jahmîr shuffled the papers into a neat pile and set them aside. Even though he had finished with what he had been reading, he still seemed preoccupied, glancing out the window. “How's the fish?” he asked, rearranging the plates in front of him.

“Fine,” Éowyn said evenly, lifting her gaze to meet his. She saw his eyebrow arch slightly.

“Your girl did not do a very good job of powdering your face,” he commented, studying her. “Those bruises are quite unbecoming for a lady of your stature.”

“Perhaps you should have a word with the rat who put them there,” she answered.

Al-Jahmîr chuckled. “I would, but she insists on spitting venom at me.” As Éowyn shook her head, he continued, spearing a piece of fish. “You brought that upon yourself. I told you to behave, mind your manners, act the lady that you are, but you insisted, continue to insist, on being impolite and low. I didn't think I would ever have to beat it out of you, but if that is what has to happen, all the worse.”

“I still find it absurd that you expect me to 'mind my manners', as you put it,” she snapped back. “You say that as though you expect me to one day wake up and become a polished lady for you, as if you expect me to realize that I should love you for some reason. You have nothing worthy of love in you.”

He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on the tabletop. He simply watched her for a few moments as she stared back at him, anger and disgust clouding her face. She went on. “Even thugs on a street have more dignity than you. You beat and threaten me, and then you go and beat and shatter a frightened young girl who was only doing her duty to you.” Her revulsion was clear in her tone. “Even the whores in a brothel are treated better. You--” Her words fled.

The Snake had not moved during her speech, but he watched her now with a dangerous look in his eyes, as though daring her to go farther. She swallowed. He leaned forward, and when he spoke, his voice was quiet and hard. “What I do with my consorts is none of your concern,” he said swiftly. “Do not be so foolish as to think you're the first woman to try raise some guilt in me about them. For now you are considered one of them as well,” he continued. “Do not think that anyone will take special note that today you have bruises or tomorrow you sport a fine jewel. Only the gossips will make any noise about it.

“I have told you time and again to mind your manners because I do not want to think that there are fishmongers' daughters with more class and grace than you,” he hissed. “Perhaps your late husband found such crudities charming and quaint, but they will not pass for anything but garbage here.” He smirked. “I seem to recall there was some whispering among other tark nobles about whether you should be seen in public at all, much less socialize with anyone of stature. Perhaps you were indeed best suited to be a brood mare for the late Steward, though it took you long enough to even produce a whelp.”

“Enough!” Éowyn's voice cracked. She had clutched the cloth napkin in her lap until she could feel her fingernails digging into her skin through the fabric. He could not be in his right mind, she concluded. Or perhaps cruelty was his right mind. She was shocked to find hot tears running down her cheeks even as she shook from anger. “Enough!” she repeated. “You are a monster. Once Gondor is finished with you, even the, the, the ravens will not want to peck at your poisonous corpse.” Despite her anger, she felt rooted to her chair, but even if she could have moved, she would have forced herself to remain in front of him. She would not give him the victory of driving her to walking out on him, though she doubted he would even let her leave without his permission.

Al-Jahmîr toyed with a ring on his finger. “A monster, am I?” he asked quietly. “Do monsters house their guests in luxury and give them all they could desire? Do monsters let their ladies run wild and reprimand them with light taps to the face? Would a monster let you spend your days however you choose, mostly? I have told you before that I can be kind.”

“I do not think you know what that word means,” Éowyn said through gritted teeth. “What you call kindness is no more than an elaborate ploy, a ruse. I'm a prisoner and yet you dress me in silks. Why? Why go through so much effort? Why did you even bring me here? You've never answered me that.”

Al-Jahmîr reached for some almonds and popped a couple into his mouth, crunching them placidly. “I haven't answered that question because I don't have to,” he replied. “The peach does not ask why it falls from the tree; it simply lets go.”

Éowyn shook her head again and looked away. “You're insane,” she murmured.

The Snake laughed. “They say that insanity and genius are easily confused,” he said.

Éowyn threw her napkin on the table. “Are you finished with me? May I go? Or do I have to put up with more of your taunts at your leisure?”

Al-Jahmîr looked started. “Well now, that's the closest you've come to a polite request,” he drawled, dabbing at his mouth with his own napkin. “But no, I haven't grown frustrated with your company yet.” He rose and bid her to come with him. She stood slowly, not relishing the idea that this meeting would last longer than usual. They entered what Éowyn guessed to be his personal sitting or entertaining room. Several lamps lit the room, making the walls glow. A thick, pale yellow rug covered the center of the floor. Around it were a handful of padded chairs and a long couch with tasseled pillows. She glanced at the far wall and took a step back. Mounted to it were a set of enormous, open jaws filled with sharp, pointed teeth. Even from across the room, she was sure she would have been able to stand inside the jaws without needing to duck her head.

Al-Jahmîr followed her stunned stare. “A moon shark,” he explained. “As you can see, they're capable of snapping a man in half. They prefer deeper water, out in the open sea, but from time to time they'll come into the shallows.”

Éowyn slipped into the nearest chair and tore her eyes away from the display, unsure why it had unsettled her so much. Al-Jahmîr disappeared into another room and returned a moment later with a pair of books in his hand. “I thought you might like some light reading,” he said, offering her the books. “I haven't had the time to start them.” As he again left the room, Éowyn opened the cover of the top book and stared at the page. She had held a slim hope that the books wouldn't be written in Adûnaic, but her fears were confirmed. She could speak the language well enough, life with Faramir nearly demanded it, but she was lost when it came to the written word. She turned a page as al-Jahmîr returned to the room, more paperwork in hand. He took a seat in a chair opposite her and immediately began studying the documents, oblivious to her presence. She kept turning pages regularly as the hour wore on, determined not to let the Snake have something to base another one of his jibes on.

From time to time, al-Jahmîr looked up from his papers and studied her intently. At one point he seemed on the verge of asking her a question, but settled back in his chair without voicing it. After awhile, she felt herself growing sleepy as well as slightly sick from the incense that scented this room as well. She rubbed her forehead with one hand as she continued her ruse. The Snake had nearly finished reading his papers when a liveried guard strode into the room. His uniform was finer than others Éowyn had seen, and from the way he carried himself, assured and with a dangerous grace, Éowyn suspected that he was an officer, perhaps even a captain, since he had entered his master's chambers without even announcing himself. She watched him as he leaned down to confer quietly with his master. The Snake nodded several times and once looked directly at her, as though regarding her for the first time all afternoon. The captain glanced at her as well, and she was surprised to see bright green eyes instead of the usual dark brown common among Umbarians. He and the Snake spoke again for a few more minutes, then he saluted and quickly left the room. Éowyn went back to “reading” her book, though she noted that al-Jahmîr watched her for quite some time before going back to his papers.

Éowyn wondered about the soldier's errand. She had never seen him before, nor had she ever been present when one of his captains brought news. Usually the Snake sent her away when it came time to discuss such things. But they had to have been talking about me, she thought. The Snake could hardly take his eyes off me once the captain began speaking. Was something happening outside the castle walls? Had Faramir returned, leading an army? She realized her grip had tightened on the book until her knuckles had almost turned white. She relaxed her hold quickly, hoping al-Jahmîr had not noticed. Glancing up, she saw that he had returned to his own reading.

Do not get your hopes up, she cautioned herself. Perhaps he is planning something you know nothing about yet. Who knew what other schemes the Snake had in operation? She let out a long breath. This could even be another one of his games, and if it was, surely she was playing right into his hands by getting flustered.

Time passed, and when the Snake had finished his business, he stood and stretched. “This has been enough excitement forone day,” he said, offering her his hand. Éowyn ignored it and stood on her own, giving back the book. “Did you like it?” he asked, for once passing on her refusal.

“Fascinating,” she replied, doing her best to smile. “I'm curious as to what happens to the hero.”

His face brightened. “Good! I shall have you back to finish it then.” He showed her to the hallway, and as she turned to go back to her apartments, he leaned and whispered in her ear, “It was a report on all the trade my ships carried last year.”

Éowyn stiffened but did not look back at him as she started down the hallway, fists clenched and quivering.

+

That evening she lay in bed, shivering. The wind blowing off the sea chilled her quarters, and even the fire Miliani had lit seemed to be a poor comfort. The girl had brought her an extra pair of blankets, and these had helped to warm her some. For a little while she had wondered if she was beginning to fever for some reason, but other than being cold she did not feel ill. Her back and joints ached, but that was not unusual for her during her pregnancies. Neither was the exhaustion she now felt. She ran a hand over her rounding belly. Helping a child grow was not an easy task. Faramir had once teased her about it, in the months before Elboron's birth, saying that all she seemed to be doing was eating more and sleeping more and there certainly was nothing difficult about that. He had quickly sobered up, though, when there were days she could hardly keep down more than a few bites of bread or when there were nights she barely got more than a few hours of sleep because the child kept kicking her ribs or weighing down on other organs with increasing discomfort. He had rubbed her feet at the end of the day when they were swollen and red and no longer fit into her regular shoes.

She let out a shaky sigh as the memories drifted through her mind. She missed him deeply. Where was he, she wondered. Had he recovered from his injuries by now? Had he gone back to Khiblat Pharazôn to heal and plan her rescue? Was he in the hills nearby, preparing to launch his attack? Is that what had worried the Snake today? She rolled onto her side, her previous position becoming too uncomfortable. Or had he returned to Gondor, to ask aid from Elessar? She felt her hopes sink slightly. How long would such a journey take, and would Elessar even let him go back south? Surely the king would understand that Faramir would need to be among the rescue efforts and could be trusted not to give into reckless action. She frowned and hugged the blanket closer to herself. But would the king risk his Steward yet again? Even if Faramir had not gone back north, Elessar could still order him to remain out of harm's way and stay at Khiblat Pharazôn or some other secure location.

As the child kicked suddenly, she pressed her hand to the spot. A different set of thoughts sprung up. How would Faramir react when he learned that she was with child? She recalled he had been reluctant to confirm whether he wanted another child. He had claimed to be concerned for her health, but was that his only reservation? Again, she wished they could have made amends before that dreadful night in Kadall, and once more she felt self-reproach rising in her. A completely different thought sprung up and left her even colder. What if he did not believe the child was his? If this ordeal lasted many more months and he only learned of her pregnancy much later, would he have doubts? Would he wonder if the Snake had bedded her by force or – she felt sick – if she had gone to him willingly. You fool, she thought scathingly, you have never given him reason to doubt your faithfulness. Do you really think he would believe you had sought out another man's bed, especially the bed of the man who has kidnapped you and nearly killed those you love? Do you trust him so little?

She wiped teardrops from her cheeks. Part of her said that these thoughts were only upsetting her, and she did not need to make things harder on herself than they already were. But once doubts were raised, it was hard to push them back. She felt weariness weighing on her, but her troubled mind would not let her drift to sleep for several more hours. Once she had fallen asleep, disconcerting dreams haunted her. In one she saw al-Jahmîr holding her dark-haired baby and singing to the little one, calling him “my little princeling.” Then she scene changed and it was Faramir cradling the babe in his arms, whispering gentle words to his “sweet elf-maid.” The dream flickered between the two scenes for a long while, until Éowyn saw al-Jahmîr walking into the distance with a dark-haired toddler clutching his hand firmly. The scene changed for the last time, and it was Faramir placing the swaddled babe in a cradle out in the desert, then turning and walking away, his footprints becoming covered with sand and disappearing entirely as he abandoned the child.

Éowyn woke sharply, shaking and frightened. She rolled over but knew that Faramir would not be beside her, ready with soothing words and assurances that he would never abandon his children, that it was foolish to put any faith in nightmares. Leaning down, she picked up one of the blankets she had thrown off in the night after getting too warm. The air still carried a chill, and as she propped herself up to look out the window, the prospects of a sunny, warm day seemed slim. The morning light had to filter through gray clouds that seemed to promise more rain.

Miliani noticed she had begun stirring and came over to wish her a good morning and bring tidings. Breakfast would beserved in the dining room in the women's quarters today, and the master would be joining them for the meal. Éowyn tried to make the excuse that she felt too ill to attend, but Miliani only shook her head and said Bataye had told her the master had been adamant that all his consorts be present.

“I am not one of his consorts,” Éowyn muttered darkly, pulling the blanket close. Miliani smiled weakly and told her thatshe needed to begin getting ready immediately. “Tis only breakfast,” Éowyn said, sitting up reluctantly.

“It's not one you want to attend wearing your night clothes,” Miliani said. “Saribêth's and Rashidah's serving girls have been ironing clothes and fetching fresh creams and lotions for an hour already, and I saw Lael's and Aliyah's girls arguing over a stack of bath towels.”

“All this fuss for breakfast?” Éowyn wondered, rubbing the small of her back with both hands.

“It's not just breakfast,” Miliani said, lowering her voice. “Don't you see? All the consorts will be together with the master, trying to get his attention.”

“I could do with a little less of his attention,” Éowyn muttered darkly. Nonetheless, she began getting ready at Miliani's insistence. The girl kept asking if she wanted to wear a particular dress or have her hair styled in a special way, and she grew ever more exasperated when Éowyn said she had no preference. Almost two hours later, Miliani put the final toucheson Éowyn's face, some pale pink powder to brighten her cheeks and a touch of color on her lips. The air smelled of apple blossoms from the lotion that had been rubbed onto her arms and dry elbows.

Éowyn studied her reflection. Miliani had swept her hair up, pinning it in place with small clips and then slipping in two slender jade sticks with tiny leaves carved into the sides. She had taken thin strips of hair and wrapped them around a rod that had been heating in the fire. Éowyn lightly touched the bouncing curls after they had been unwrapped from the rod, but Miliani brushed her hand away, saying that the curl would go flat if she toyed with it too much. Miliani repeated the process on other strips of hair until Éowyn had more than half a dozen curled ribbons of hair falling around her face and neck. Looking at her reflection again, she snorted. The ladies at court would certainly have had something to say about her appearance now, muttering about propriety and extravagance instead of their usual comments about plainness. The girl had swathed her face in creams and powders, doing her best to cover the blue bruises along the jawline. They were still visible, but their color had been dulled greatly. She was certain her eyes were not that big, but she had felt the girl rub something on them with what had looked like a pencil of some kind.

She stood and shook out the skirt on the pale green dress she now wore. The neckline on this one plunged far lower than she thought appropriate, though part of her said she might not have minded so much if she knew Faramir would see her in it. Miliani had added a necklace of clear glass beads with strings of jade beads cascading from the main strand. Éowyn had to admit that the girl had an eye for these things.

She had just slipped on her houseshoes and gone into her sitting room when Aliyah burst through the doors from the
common room, sobbing. “I don't want to see him again,” she cried, running the back of her hand across her eyes. The
serving maid that had followed her in cringed and tried dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. When she looked up, Éowyn saw how the cream or power or whatever the maid had put on her eyes had gotten wet from the tears and was now smeared around her eyes, making her look like she hadn't slept in weeks. She fell silent when she saw Éowyn, though her breath continued to come in broken gasps. Her face contorted in anger, and before Éowyn could say anything, she cursed loudly, spun around, and rushed out of the room, lifting the skirt of her white dress with indigo splotches so she did not trip over it.

Bewildered, Éowyn watched her go but did not move to follow her. She wasn't sure why or how the girl had gone from sobbing over the Snake to being furious with her. She glanced at Miliani, who merely shrugged. They started for the diningroom, which Éowyn was only mildly surprised to find was the same one in which she had had her spat with Rashidah. The low table had a line of fresh flowers on it, and the large, tasseled cushions looked freshly fluffed and cleaned. Rashidah and Saribêth had already arrived and were sitting across the table from each other. They stopped sending deadly glares at each other long enough to regard Éowyn with the same distaste before resuming their crossfire. Lael lounged on a cushion, seemingly oblivious to the silent catfight at the other end of the table from her as she studied the fingernails on her right hand. But, by the way she flicked her eyes up with Éowyn entered, only a fool would say she was not aware of the situation. Éowyn noted that Lahar and Aliyah had not arrived yet as she carefully lowered herself to a cushion.

“Penny whore.” She heard Saribêth mutter.

“Ship's slut,” Rashidah returned in an equally measured voice.

“I have a cream that'll turn your skin to boils.”

“I have a soap that'll leave you bald.”

“Who gave you that rash you've been compl--”

Rashidah had lunged halfway across the table, fist at the ready, when footsteps sounded in the hall. She slipped back onto her cushion, working to make her face placid, when a servant walked past the doorway without stopping. Her stare at Saribêth was murderous. The other simply smirked and looped a strand of hair around her finger. Éowyn thought Rashidah would take another shot at her, but the sound of more footsteps and a man and woman laughing ended any such plans.

Éowyn was not surprised to see the Snake walk in, but she was startled to see Lahar on his arm, batting her eyes and
giggling at something he leaned to whisper in her ear. She lightly touched her sister's shoulder as they passed and arched her plucked and sculpted eyebrows at Rashidah who returned the gesture with a sickly sweet smile. Rashidah had brightened up considerably when the Snake walked in, as had Saribêth and, to some extent, Lael. While the other two had turned into simpering maids, she had merely leaned back on her cushion and gave a relaxed half-smile.

“Good morning, my beauties,” the al-Jahmîr said jovially. “Perhaps I should send you all outside to brighten up the day as you've lit up this room.”

Several variations on “good morning” and “thank you” popped up around the table. Éowyn counted the petals on the flower nearest her seat. When he reached the head of the table, Lahar still at his side, al-Jahmîr glanced around the table. His eyebrows furrowed slightly, as though something were amiss, then let the feeling pass. As he began to sit, he told Rashidah, “Would you move down one place.” Éowyn glanced up in time to see the bright smile freeze on the consort's face. As Rashidah slowly changed seats, Lahar pulled the empty cushion beside the Snake's and sat down serenely. From her place at the end of the table, Éowyn wondered how long Rashidah could keep her face still before it shattered.

The sound of soft slippers scuffing the floor broke into her thoughts, and a moment later Aliyah appeared in the doorway, lifted her gaze long enough to glance around the room, and sat at the first available cushion, her eyes fixed on the table. The dark patches around her eyes had been cleaned off hurriedly, leaving the skin a rosy red color. Éowyn suspected that the redness wasn't solely from scrubbing. Her hair looked like someone had tried to change the style on short notice, ran out of time, and clipped it in place wherever possible. When Lael reached over to clasp her hand, she jerked it away awkwardly.

“Now that we're all here,” al-Jahmîr said dryly, “let's begin.” On cue, servants appeared carrying trays laden with food, and for awhile the room was a flutter of activity as they offered al-Jahmîr and his consorts a variety of fruits, porridges, egg-dishes, and other options. Once the rush was over, Éowyn was surprised to find her plate had far more food than anyone else's. Saribêth glanced at her and sniffed. Rashidah had recovered from her shock and was keen on ignoring everyone else except the pair at the head of the table. Aliyah had taken only a peach and a hard-boiled egg, and she stared at them as though they contained a great secret. Lael dropped her reserved attitude long enough to smile, lean across the table, and whisper, “Don't feel bad. You're carrying a child after all.”

Éowyn smiled back weakly. Miliani had been right about the competition factor here, but she had not guessed that it would rub off on her as well, if only a little bit. Conversation began to drift around the table. Saribêth kept a civil tongue with Lahar, talking about something she had seen the other day in the garden. Rashidah spoke up from time to time, but judging by her comments, Éowyn guessed the closest she had come to the gardens was looking over the railing of her balcony. The Snake spoke up occasionally, but he mostly listened and watched the girls interact.

Lael leaned across the table again. “Let those two biddies squabble,” she whispered. “Sooner or later one of them'll prove she's an ass.”

“He seems to be doting on your sister,” Éowyn said, glancing to the pair as they shared a brief kiss.

Lael shrugged. “Perhaps. He sent for her last night.”

“What secrets are you two whispering?” al-Jahmîr called, raising his voice above the conversation in front of him. All three girls there did not appear to be pleased with the interruption; Lahar looked mildly annoyed, Rashidah and Saribêth greatly irritated.

“What makes you think we're telling secrets, urug?” Lael answered, arching an eyebrow.

Al-Jahmîr returned the gesture. “Two women with heads close together, talking so nobody can hear them? Sounds like either secrets or conspiracies to me, urgî.”

Lael sighed. “I'm afraid we'll just have to disappoint you this time. We were talking about how lovely that consort at your side looks in her blue dress and pearls. I wish I could be as pretty as she is.” She winked as Lahar laughed softly.

“Oh sister,” Lahar said, “everyone knows you're the pretty one.”

Al-Jahmîr chuckled. “I think both of you should join me tonight, and I'll be judge of which of you is prettier.” His next words were cut short as Lahar kissed him swiftly. Lael leaned back against her cushion, looking quite pleased with herself. Rashidah and Saribêth stabbed at the food on their plates while Aliyah continued to stare at her egg and peach.

“Izrêyî!” Rashidah said suddenly in a sweet voice, “Tell us a secret!”

“Tell you a secret?” he repeated, looking puzzled. “What secret could I possibly tell you and keep it safe? I know what gossips you are; the whole countryside would know within an hour, an Umbar in two.” Lahar giggled and rested her cheek against his shoulder.

“No!” Saribêth exclaimed, looking abashed. “It would take at least three to get to Umbar. We aren't that good, yet.”

“We promise not to tell anyone,” Rashidah added. “Not even the gold fish.”

“The gold fish would be the best ones to tell,” Lael said suddenly, “since they died two months ago.”

Rashidah gave her a withering stare. “We got new ones,” she snapped.

“Right,” Lael said pointedly, rolling her eyes.

Al-Jahmîr raised a hand. “Enough sniping you two.” He took a sip of his drink, then looked thoughtful. “I think I will tell you a secret,” he said. Lahar lifted her head, her eyes bright; Rashidah and Saribêth squealed; Lael leaned forward, betraying her interest; Aliah continued staring down her breakfast. Éowyn was disgusted with the whole situation. She was not surprised that the ones she knew to be whores were filling their roles perfectly. She was a bit unsettled by how easily the twins fawned and performed for their master. And she was quite concerned at how Aliyah appeared to be nothing more than a large doll, sitting at a table in a game of playing house.

“Tell us,” Saribêth pouted.

“All right,” al-Jahmîr said, “since you promised to keep it secret. In about ten days time I am going to host an evening dinner party in the house gardens and I would like all of you to attend.” Gasps erupted from the girls in front (Lael rolled her eyes and murmured, “Some secret.”)

“That's wonderful, izrêyî,” Rashidah squealed. “What do you want me to wear?”

“Whatever you want,” al-Jahmîr answered. “I want you all to look your best so that everyone will be jealous that I have all these beautiful women living with me.”

“Who's coming?” Saribêth asked.

Al-Jahmîr shrugged. “Some friends, some businessmen, but you don't need to worry about that. You just need to show up slim and pretty.”

“You'll have some trouble with that, won't you kishka?” Rashidah said under her breath, giving Éowyn a smug look.

“Éowyn has some special considerations,” al-Jahmîr said evenly, “though I fully expect her to show up and be civil.”

“I'm sure she won't have a problem doing that,” Lael interjected, bringing some relief to the suddenly tense
atmosphere. “We know she can be civil, don't we Rashidah?”

“Quite,” Rashidah said stiffly.

“And I'd prefer if you left your squabbles indoors, if only for a few hours,” al-Jahmîr continued. “I know how difficult that will be for some of you.”

“Stop being so facetious,” Lahar chided him gently, running her fingers through his hair. “We can behave when we have to.”

“Can you?” he teased, leaning to kiss her again.

The meal continued a while longer, and when it was time for al-Jahmîr to leave, he went around the table fare welling each of them with a kiss or a caress and some whispered word. Éowyn flinched as he slipped his arm around her shoulders. “You will attend,” he murmured in her ear, “and I expect you to act like a lady, even if I have to beat it into you every day until then.”

“I hope you don't complain when the bruises mar my complexion,” she replied in a normal voice, well aware that every head spun in her direction.

“Other places bruise just as easily,” he hissed, gripping her shoulder tightly. He moved on to Aliyah, who flinched as soon as he touched her. He whispered something in her ear and paused as though awaiting a reply. When none came, he spoke again. This time Aliyah smiled weakly, the corners of her mouth barely lifting, and nodded slowly. “Good,” the Snake said aloud, lifting her chin to kiss her fully on the mouth. When he stood, Aliyah ducked her head again, looking slightly abashed but with a growing smile. She began peeling her peach.

Al-Jahmîr bid them all farewell again and left, followed by a chorus of “goodbye”s and “miss you”s. The room filled with a strained silence until the sound of his footsteps faded down the hallway. Rashidah and Saribêth began standing at the same time, then froze, giving each other wary looks. Rashidah slowly sank back onto her cushion, her eyes narrowing. She waited until the other had passed through the doorway before gathering the shawl she had brought with her and standing. “Whore,” she spat at Lahar as she turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

“That's like the sea complaining that rain's wet,” Lahar yelled after her. Rolling her eyes, she muttered, “Tramp.” She stood and went to sit by her sister, wrapping her arms around her loosely and resting her head on her shoulder.

“Didn't you sleep last night?” Lael teased, reaching over to brush back some hair that had fallen across her sister's face.

“No,” Lahar groaned. “He kept waking me up, wretched man.” She reached out and touched one of Éowyn's curls. “I love how these look on you. You should wear them more often. And you,” she leaned to peer at Aliyah, “what was that all about at the end there? I was almost jealous.”

Aliyah blushed. “Nothing.”

“Right,” Lael said. “In case you didn't notice, well, you couldn't have noticed because you were too busy getting the breath kissed out of you,” she teased, “those whores up front looked ready to strangle you. I'd beware any new soaps or creams that mysteriously show up at your bath.” Aliyah blushed even deeper and dropped her gaze, though she did look pleased with herself.

“How's the baby?” Lahar asked, sitting up.

“Keeping me awake at night and giving me headaches,” Éowyn said, running a hand over her belly.

“Sounds like someone else I know,” Lahar grumbled.

Éowyn had fought a rising anger ever since the Snake had spoken to her at the end of breakfast, and now it flared up again.

“I've told you before, it's not his,” she said crossly.

“I know, I'm just--”

“And even though you may be amused at being one of his whores, I am not happy with being considered and treated like one.”

“There's no need to be rude,” Lael said softly.

“Look around, idiot!” Lahar snapped. “You are one of us now. Just because you're convinced that your dead husband is going to come from beyond the grave to save you doesn't mean it's true. In case you haven't noticed, you're living with the consorts, you're dressing like a consort, and you're eating with the consorts. Just because he hasn't brought you to his bed yet doesn't make you something special or better than us. Last night he called me by your name twice, and that really doesn't make me happy,” she snarled.

Éowyn tried getting to her feet quickly, but swayed halfway up and found herself suddenly leaning on Miliani, who had rushed to her side. The girl helped her to her feet and, without another word, she marched out of the room and back to her apartments, hot anger and disgust still bubbling within her. So the Snake was thinking about her when he was bedding another of his consorts, was he? The idea made her want to take a bath and scrub herself clean. I will never be yours, Snake. You are the delusional one, not me.

When she got to her rooms, Miliani helped her into a more comfortable (and warmer) dress and brushed out her hair, tying it back simply with a ribbon. Éowyn curled up in her bed, tucking the blankets around her. The day had not gotten much warmer, and the breeze had driven away what warmth there was. Miliani brought a brazier and set it near the bed. The heat helped her relax, even when thoughts of the Snake rekindled her anger. The sleep that had deserted her during the night now beckoned, and before long she had drifted off.

+

The afternoon she spent in her sitting room, working on the embroidery for another blanket. At one point in her life, the thought of such needlework would have seemed loathsome, for what good was embroidery when there was need for heroes and deeds of valor? Even now she would not say it was her first choice when she needed something to do, but she did get a sense of pride when she saw her little ones wrapped in a blanket she had sewn or saw one carrying it wherever he went. Though her boys were generally more fond of their horsey-dolls, she recalled that Meriadoc had grown quite attached to the little green blanket she had made for him.

As usual, thoughts of her children both brightened and dampened her mood. She wondered what sort of things they were doing, what things they had learned, how much they had grown. The longing to see them washed over her again, as well as fears and doubts. Would they still remember her? Small children had small memories, after all. But surely they would not forget their mother so easily. She had not been parted from them yet nearly as long as Faramir had when the Snake had imprisoned him on Tolfalas, and Elboron had recognized him when he returned that beautiful day in the gardens. But, she thought with a twinge, as the months had worn on, it had become more of a struggle to make sure he remembered his dadi.

She banished such dreary thoughts from her mind. Faramir was working to rescue her, and it seemed that Azrahil and
Narejde at least were already in the city. She would be gone from here soon, most likely on a ship bound for the north, a much shorter journey than its land-locked counterpart.

The rest of the afternoon and evening she spent indoors. The weather outside, though it had brightened eventually, still did not seem friendly to any who didn't have to be outside, and she also realized that she did not have the energy to visit her horse and go for a ride this day. With the wind like it was, the horses would likely be frisky, and she did not want to deal with a nervous animal spooking at every shadow and blowing leaf. A quiet day inside, by her choice, of course, was more appealing.

+

That night she was woken from a deep slumber by one of Inzilbêth's maids, to her surprise. “Forgive me for waking you,” the girl said, her face stricken in the pale yellow lamplight, “but my lady is having trouble with her baby and begs for your help.”

Éowyn rubbed her eyes and groaned inwardly. What could possibly be so bad that Inzilbêth would send for her? At this hour of the night? Wouldn't one of the healers have been more appropriate if something were wrong with the child? “Alright,” she said finally, “I will come.”

She heard the child wailing even before she entered Inzilbêth's quarters, the short, broken cries of a still-newborn baby. A couple small lamps had been lit, their light barely illuminating half the room. She saw Inzilbêth walking in frantic circles, bouncing the child in her arms. When the new mother looked up at her as she entered, she saw that her eyes were red and puffy, evidence of her own distress.

“She won't s-stop crying,” Inzilbêth stammered.

Éowyn closed her eyes briefly. She had feared it would be something like this: nothing to worry about overall, but horribly dramatic for an exhausted and easily-worried first-time mother.

“The healers said nothing's wrong with her, but she doesn't want to eat, and she's not wet, but I can't get her to quiet, and Adûn tried and couldn't quiet her and neither could the healers and--”

Éowyn raised a hand. “She may just need to cry until she tires herself out,” she said gently. “Sometimes that's all you can do.” As Inzilbêth bit her lip, she saw a fresh round of tears beginning to glisten in her eyes. She sighed. “Let me take her for a few minutes. I know my way around fussy babies.” Relief flooded Inzilbêth's face, and she quickly handed her child over. Éowyn adjusted her hold on the squirming infant. “Oh, it's so hard being a baby, isn't it,” she said softly, starting the slow, swaying walk that had helped soothe her own children. “Nobody understands what you want, and so you just have to cry and cry until someone figures out what you need. So hard, so hard...” As she rubbed the baby's back with one hand, she saw Inzilbêth sit on the edge of her bed, which she had not noticed before since the ring of lamplight did not quite reach that far across the room. As the woman buried her face in her hands, Éowyn saw her husband prop himself up on one elbow and stroke her hair.

Turning from them, she continued to rub the baby's back, noticing how it seemed to lengthen the pauses between cries. She frowned. “Are you cold, little one?” she asked in the same soft sing-song voice. “Is that why you will not go to sleep for your mami?” She walked over to the cradle and picked up one of the soft blankets folded at the foot and wrapped it over the thin one already around the baby. “I think you might be. It got cold today,” she continued, still walking around the room. “Not as cold as what I am used to, but rather cold for this place.” After several more minutes of walking and talking, shesaw that it was taking more and more effort for the child to open her eyes when she blinked, and when Éowyn looked down again, she had fallen asleep.

As she carefully placed the baby in her cradle, Inzilbêth stood and came over, wiping her eyes. “How did you do that?”

“She didn't mind an extra blanket, so I think she might have been cold,” Éowyn said gently. “Then it was just a matter of waiting for her to settle down.”

Inzilbêth nodded. “I'm just so afraid of hurting her, or not knowing what she wants or how to help her. I just wanted to help her so she would stop crying, but she wouldn't stop, and I felt so helpless, and...”

“You are not expected to know everything about comforting a baby right away,” Éowyn said. “She is still learning how to be a baby. You are still learning how to be a mother. She is not even two weeks old yet; you have hardly had time to begin to learn all the little things about her. Take a breath. The night only makes these things seem worse than they are.”

“That's true,” Inzilbêth agreed, her voice still quivering. “Thank you for coming. I didn't want to wake you because I know how you need to sleep, but I couldn't think of anything else to do.”

“As long as you do not make a habit out of it,” Éowyn told her, patting her arm.

“I'll try not to.”

Éowyn went back to her quarters and tried to get back to the slumber she had been enjoying, but her late-night excursion seemed to have woken her own child, which now moved and rolled within her. “Now, if only I could figure out how to calm you down,” she murmured, pressing a hand to her belly. Several times throughout the rest of the night she nearly drifted off to sleep or fell into a light doze when a noise or something else would startle her awake again. She managed to get a few hours of sleep, but once she woke after dawn, something told her that this time she would not drift off again.

As she ate her breakfast, she watched the fog lighten and burn off as the sun poked through the morning clouds. The day already seemed warmer, and she decided to visit the stables before al-Jahmîr could send for her or something else could bother her plans. The flagstones glistened still in the morning light, and here and there puddles remained from the previous days' rain. When she reached the stables, she found that the horses appreciated the nicer weather as well, some tossing their heads or kicking at stall doors. Her horse neighed when she approached, arching its neck and pacing around in the stall.

“You have some extra energy today, don't you,” she said, offering a pear on one palm as she stroked the mare's forehead with the other. After finishing the treat, the horse snorted and sniffed up her arm before blowing in her hair.

“I thought I heard a commotion this way.” Éowyn looked over her shoulder as Hazadai came into view, leading a spotted mare. “We were beginning to wonder about you.”

“The weather didn't agree with me,” Éowyn said.

“It didn't agree with most people, it seems,” Hazadai agreed. He put the horse away and came back by her. “If you take her out today, keep a tight rein. They're all feeling like foals today. Even a tired errand rider's horse just arrived this morning kicked its heels a bit in the cool-down yard.”

“What news?” Éowyn asked, watching him from the corner of her eye.

He shrugged. “Didn't say, didn't appear to be concerned, though you can rarely tell with them. The sea could cover Umbar city and they'd say things were a bit damp.” Errand riders could be a cynical bunch. They almost had to be, since often they carried messages that interested parties other than the intended recipient.

Éowyn set to work on grooming her horse and then tacked up and led the animal outside. Her guard, again Roshin, was already waiting for her, holding the reins to the chestnut colt she remembered Hazadai schooling the week before. The horse tossed its head and shifted its weight restlessly. Her mare nickered and shied to one side.

“The Widow's Harvest is today, and you are not to go within two rows of the edge of the New Orchard,” Roshin stated. “They don't want the peasants seeing someone from the house and run over to beg coins or more.” Despite the disdain in hisvoice, Éowyn suspected that little more than his position as one of the Snake's guards distinguished him from the peasants harvesting today.

Hazadai appeared to see them off. “Remember what I said about a tight rein,” he told Éowyn, checking the bridle out of habit. “And you,” he looked at Roshin, “keep an eye on that fellow. He'll cause mischief if you let him have his way. Don't stray too far from the main trails,” he added after a pause. “It's still quite muddy and slick out there.”

They started out of the stable-yard, the horses' ears up and swiveling. Sunlight played on the puddles at the side of the lane and warmed Éowyn's back and shoulders. She took a deep breath of the fresh air, glad to be outdoors and on a horse again. The healers might say bedrest was good for her body, but it was torture on her spirit. Entering the orchard area, she eyed the mud situation and decided that it was not too terrible to ride through, despite the shlop-shlop of the horses' hooves.

These rows of peach trees had not been harvested yet, but it appeared that they soon would be since trees farther into the orchard appeared bare. From time to time a soft thud sounded as a ripe, heavy fruit broke its stem and crashed to the ground. The horses turned their heads whenever these sweet missiles fell, and Éowyn found herself frequently using hands and legs to keep her horse from lunging to one side or another. A slow breeze drifted through the trees, shaking limbs and causing more thuds. Éowyn heard Roshin grumbling several feet behind her as his horse snorted repeatedly and chewed on the bit.

When she got close to her two-row boundary, she could hear the people taking part in the Widow's Harvest before she saw them. Children laughed and shouted; someone struck up a bawdy song about the corsair and his five wives who accidentally met in the marketplace. Éowyn bit back a laugh as she heard Roshin hum along to the chorus.

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri 02 Nov , 2007 5:57 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
“I do like this song,” stated Lôkhî between bites from his peach. He had settled down on a tree-stump and was tapping his walking-stick against his leg, in rhythm with the melody of a rather bawdy song someone in the upper orchards now out of sight had struck up. “Wonder if our friend the corsair has heard of it. Oi,” he then called to Faramir who was busy picking fruit out of the tall grass, “you forgot a big one over there.” He pointed with the cane, grinning mischievously, especially when Faramir gave him a glare over the veil.

Lôkhî laughed, taking another bite from his peach. “Never done much manual labour, have you, lordship?” he observed good-naturedly.

“Actually, during our adolescence my elder brother and I were sent to work with the peasants from time to time by our father,” Faramir replied, straightening carefully and suppressing a groan. His back and especially his shoulder protested at the movement. “He held that we should have experienced what difficulties they must face day after day and so appreciate our rather exalted position all the more. Even though I cursed him now and again after a hard day on a field or in an orchard, I believe he was right.”

“Quite unusual,” commented Lôkhî thoughtfully. “Well, my father also sent me and my brothers and sisters to work in the fields, but not for some extra experience, I can tell you. Without us children working, and working hard, we wouldn’t have had enough food for everybody. But I don’t com—”

He fell silent when he saw Faramir straighten even more, then begin to climb the lower branches of the tree, so as to be able to peer across the hedge. “What –” he asked, but Faramir only shook his head, indicating silence.

“Hey you, over there,” came a call from the direction the guards had last been seen, “what do you think you’re doing in that tree? Get down at once!”

Faramir slid down again, casting a glance over his shoulder at the guards. Two had appeared between the trees where the singers were working. Once was beginning to stalk off in their direction but halted again when his companion shook his head and muttered a view words, pointing at Lôkhî, then tipping his head with a meaningful glance. The other guard grinned and nodded. “I don’t want to see you up that tree again, boy,” he called to Faramir, “otherwise we’ll get you down by force, and you don’t want that. Understood?”

Faramir nodded, upon which the guards turned and walked away in the direction of the singers who now had started a sad ballad about a girl and her lover who was lost at sea.

“What is it?” asked Lôkhî hobbling over excitedly when Faramir, after a last reassuring glance at the retreating guards set off towards the hedge. Then he raised his head, listening. “Hoof-beat? Were you able to see the riders from up there?”

“Nay,” said Faramir, barely managing to keep the excitement and indeed anxiety out of his voice. “But they seem to be drawing closer. I must get past that hedge. Take care of these guards, should they check on us again. There are none on the other side right now.”

Lôkhî’s eyes narrowed, and Faramir could tell he did not approve of the change of plan. “Be careful. I’ll try and distract them should there be need, but it’s bloody dangerous business. Don’t engage in any mischief and don’t stray too far.”

“Just beyond the hedge,” replied Faramir, cowering down so that the tall grasses in front of the hedge swallowed him. From up close, the dark-green band looked far less solid than from a distance. The boxwood had not been pruned recently and put forth many new bright-green shots. Also, the branches were long enough to yield when he squeezed inside, careful not to catch his ragged garments on twigs. In the midst he paused to peer through the remaining branches.

His heart seemed to miss a beat. Sure enough, two horsemen were approaching, navigating their frisky, restless steeds along a rather muddy path some fifty yards below the hedge. The one riding a chestnut was clearly a guard, clad in the Snake’s livery and armed with scimitar and a short bow and arrows. The other, atop a smaller, grey horse …

He closed his eyes for a moment, drawing a deep breath, his hand clenching round on of the branches until it pained him. Pain – so surely this was not a dream, despite it seeming so. There she was, his beloved Éowyn, his wild shieldmaiden, her hair gleaming in the sun like on the day he had first seen her. She rode proudly like a true Eorling, governing the uneasy horse with one hand only (while the guard had to use both), her wide trousers rippling and long dress-like over-garment streaming behind her.

For a moment he simply watched, oblivious of the location and the ever-present danger, of Al-Jahmîr and his evil plans. For a moment he was simply gazing at his wife enjoying a ride in the sunshine, stricken once again by her grace and beauty, and her courage and strength.

Then the moment passed, and his mind began to take over from his heart again. They were almost level with him now, but ignorant of his presence. He knew he would not be able to simply let them pass, and be content with a brief look upon Éowyn alone. They were so close now, they had to meet. Is this the first time you stage an ambush, captain? Get rid of the guard! Nobody watches you now. Startle his horse – frisky as it is it will not take much to make it bolt and dash off, throwing its rider if you are lucky.

They were passing under some low-hanging branches when Faramir searched the deep pockets of his burnous for something to cast. He found a rather hard peach he had put there to eat later. Weighing it in his hand, he carefully and almost soundlessly wriggled into a position that would enable him to cast without having to leave his hideout and betray his whereabouts. If all went well, the rider would think the fruit had dropped off the tree – if he had an opportunity to think at all.

The guard’s horse’s ears flicked round to him nevertheless and it tossed its head. The man gathered the reins more tightly in one hand, with the other reaching up to brush away a branch that had caught in the quiver of arrows slung across his shoulder.

Faramir aimed carefully. As a boy he had been really good at this.

+

Faintly, Éowyn heard one of the guards in the other orchards order someone down from a tree. Perhaps some of the children she had heard earlier had decided to find better fruit higher up in the trees. Elboron was getting to the age where he wanted to climb trees on his own, but most of the time he still needed help from his father to reach even the lowest limbs. 'Twould not be long before the twins would want to copy their brother's actions, and that would lead to competitions of who could climb the highest without falling or being scared, which would likely lead to falls anyway and scrapes and bruises. She sighed. How long before she would be back to see such antics? She shook her head, banishing the gloomy thoughts for now. It was too nice a day to have it darkened so soon.

The trees grew denser as they rode on, and from time to time she found herself having to push aside branches or lean over her horse's neck to avoid getting tangled in the leafy traps. The swaying branches and rustling leaves, along with the occasional falling fruit, did nothing to soothe the horses' nerves. Hearing Roshin muttering behind her, she turned to see him tugging at a branch that had gotten caught in his quiver. She reined her horse in, knowing there was no use in getting too far ahead of him. She did not want him to take out his frustration at being snagged by using another of his arrows on her. Her one day of being target practice had been enough.

She relaxed her hold on the reins now that the mare was watching the twisting man curiously. Later, she wished she would not have been as careless. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a peach come sailing out of the nearby boxwood hedge, striking the chestnut colt on the hindquarters. Squealing, the horse reared and bucked. Roshin, who had been more focused on freeing himself than riding properly, swiftly fell from the saddle. Éowyn did not have time to see how he landed as the colt bolted forward as soon as its feet touched down, running directly into her mare's side. The mare neighed and tried to turn in a tight circle to get away from the panicked colt, but the mud underfoot proved quite slippery, and the mare fell to her knees. Too late to get a better grip on the reins or use her legs to hold on, Éowyn lost her seat and pitched over the mare's neck, landing hard on the firmer ground near a tree's roots. She heard something in her ankle pop and felt hot pain in her left wrist in the split second before she blacked out.

Free from restraint, the colt broke into a run, reins flapping in the wind and occasionally snapping at his shoulders, only driving him into a greater panic. Once the mare regained her footing, she hobbled after him, knees bleeding.

+

The first bit of the plan had gone very well, but the second had been an utter nightmare. Faramir watched with horror as the guard’s horse collided with Éowyn’s, who fell over her stumbling steed’s neck and out of sight, hidden behind low-hanging branches. He tried to calm himself: Of course this was not her first fall off a horse – she had practise and knew how to fall without hurting herself too much. But this had been quite unprepared, and she was with child. This thought struck him painfully like an arrow. What if she had been badly injured – seriously enough to hurt the child, to bring about a miscarriage even … He knew he would never forgive himself if this should happen because of his fault.

The guard was lying in the high grass in front of the tree Éowyn had fallen under, unstirring and not uttering a sound. Faramir supposed he had either lost consciousness or had broken his neck. And even if he was awake, or other guards looking on – there was no question of him leaving his hiding-place to look after his wife. Swiftly, bending low so as to be covered by the hedge in his back from the guards’s eyes beyond, he approached the guard. He was lying on his back, his eyes closed. His helmet had slid off, slightly dented. But there was no blood on the cap he wore underneath, and when hurriedly Faramir pressed two fingers to his neck, he could feel a pulse. The man had been knocked out, and underneath the cotton cap a nice bruise was developing, but he would wake eventually.

Despite knowing that he should secure the guard by at least tying his hand and gagging him, in case he woke far sooner than desired, Faramir hastened on, having spotted Lôkhî peering over the hedge. Apparently the little man had heard the horses running off in terror, and was now realising what had befallen. He gave Faramir a wild, shocked look, but then with a shake of his head began to squeeze through the hedge.

All this Faramir only noted absently, his mind focused on the other figure lying in the grass, near the roots of the tree. As he crept between the branches, his heart began to beat furiously, anxiety, joy and deep worry mingling. There was no sign of an outward injury, no blood which was a comfort. But the way she lay on the ground, it was possible she had hurt her left side, especially her arm which she must have used to break her fall. Kneeling down at her side and feeling for her pulse at her neck with fingers
trembling slightly, Faramir let out a shaky breath of relief. Her heartbeat was strong and regular, as was
her breathing. As he stripped off and folded his burnous to place underneath her head, and carefully moved her into a more comfortable position, he could hardly believe they were so close to each other again, when only an hour again he had not dared dream he would even see her.

When he thought she was as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, he drew back slightly to look at her. There were differences, he noted. She wore her hair far more intricately – no doubt she had a servant to arrange it. Her figure had changed, had become fuller, and like with the former pregnancies he thought it became her very well. By now it was quite plain to see she was with child, and he was tempted to place a hand on her belly to try and feel the baby, but decided to wait until she woke. The rest of the changes was less pleasant. The pierced ears he had seen already in the Palantír; they looked artificial and wrong. She did not need this kind of finery to look absolutely beautiful. But what stirred him most where the bruises on her face. There was only one explanation for them. Apparently the rumours had been true. He closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath to calm himself, his anxiety replaced by anger. Al-Jahmîr would answer for this, as for the rest, he vowed darkly – and jumped slightly when she stirred.

Very softly, he reached out to stroke back some hair that had fallen across her face, then leaned to kiss her forehead. She sighed, but did not open her eyes. “Éowyn,” he called her softly, tenderly caressing her cheek, then repeating her name more loudly. “Wake up, Éowyn.”

Now she appeared to be coming round indeed, her eyelids fluttering and her hand twitching. “’Tis alright, Melda, I am here now,” he told her quietly, amazed how calm his voice sounded whereas inside him things were all but calm. “Wake up, Melda.”

+

Éowyn stirred, flinching at the pain that raced up and down her left side. Her head ached as well and made sorting out her jumbled thoughts all the more difficult. She opened her eyes slowly and caught a glimpse of tree branches before shutting them quickly. Trees. The orchard. Yes, now she remembered that horrid colt going mad and running full-force into her mare. With any luck, the beast would break a leg, running like that through all this mud.

Hearing someone call her name, she turned her head to the sound, then felt a hand running along her cheek. No casual soldier or bystander would dare do such a thing to al-Jahmîr's special prize. Without opening her eyes again, she raised her left hand and swatted at where she thought the Snake would be, biting back a cry as a fresh stab of pain radiated from her wrist. “Leave me alone, Snake!” she muttered. She dropped her hand and turned her face away, not wanting to deal with her captor, certainly not now. A hot bath would be much more appreciated. The child was moving restlessly, kicking against her ribs. Despite the discomfort, Éowyn was glad for the movement, as it likely meant that the child had not been injured in the fall.

The voice called her name again, and though she tried to ignore it, something familiar about its sound got through to her. Wait, what did he call me? No one called her melda except... but it was impossible... Shocked into full consciousness, for a moment she dared not open her eyes and look at who was calling to her more desperately now, stroking her hair gently.

Gathering up her courage against what she feared would be certain disappointment, she opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the man bending over her. Her eyes widened at the sight of his long, tangled hair, grungy rags, and brown skin. This was not the sight she had been hoping to see, and for a moment the disappointment nearly crushed her. Then she saw his eyes, partially shaded by the tree's shadows, and went both hot and cold at the same time. Those eyes. She knew that soft grayness, despite the additional lines that now sprung up at the edges. Those eyes had made her falter the first time she had seen them, at a time when she had forsworn tenderness in search of death and glory, because of their grave tenderness and strength. But they did not fit the face... She looked harder. Yes, yes they did. She felt joy filling her. Of course they did, for they belonged to her Faramir and no other.

“Faramir,” she whispered, reaching up with her right hand to touch his face. Of course it had taken her a moment to recognize him. He must have been playing in the mud with the boys, as they loved any chance to get dirty. They would all need thorough baths as soon as they got inside, though, and for them that was not always as enjoyable. I must have fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing about al-Jahmîr, she thought suddenly. Surely she had simply fallen asleep in her own orchards like a silly girl. She was about to tell Faramir the dream when her eyes fell on her hand (which Faramir had caught in his own and was now pressing her fingers to his lips) and her sleeve. That was odd; it was tailored differently than what she usually wore. Her eyes followed the sleeve down to the rest of her dress and then out to the orchards themselves. She felt horror creeping up in her. These orchards were not patterned like theirs in Ithilien.

Before she could think further, Faramir leaned down and kissed her fully. She slipped her hand around the back of his neck and up through his hair, finding his own soft locks among the rougher strands. Somewhere in her mind she realized that it was much longer than he usually wore it, though it was absurd to be noticing such things, she told herself. Suddenly, she found herself in tears, overwhelmed. Faramir, her beloved, was alive! Really and truly alive, not something she had read in a note or hoped for in a dream. Her hands and eyes and lips would not lie to her.

“I'm sorry,” she blurted as they finished their kiss and drew apart slightly. “I'm, I'm sorry for what I said before we set out for home. I knew you were just concerned about me and did not want to rush into anything, but I didn't want to listen and I said things I should not have, and I'm sorry,” she babbled. He reached up to brush the tears from her cheeks with one hand. “Then when I saw you in the village I only wanted to be able to tell you that I love you and that I'm sorry.” She drew a shaky breath and plunged on, unintentionally giving him no chance to get a word in edgewise. “I knew you would come for me, I hoped you would. I knew you would.” She saw a sudden pain in his eyes and suddenly felt doubt. “You did come for me...”

She froze, seeing someone appear over his shoulder. Then she saw that the figure was dressed in rags like Faramir was and carrying a cane. “I'm starting to think you really did fall off the cart,” she heard the peasant mutter, drawing closer.

+

Faramir stirred at the sound of Lôkhî’s voice, but did not shift his eyes from Éowyn’s face. Too little he had seen her features of late, so that every moment he did not look at her seemed wasted. He, too, was almost overwhelmed by emotion. Her swat at him as she regained consciousness, and her words had touched him. So she had thought him to be the Snake, and struck out at him? How, how indeed could he have ever allowed thoughts of her surrendering to Al-Jahmîr to even enter his mind? Was this not proof enough of what she truly thought of her captor?

Then their kiss, and her tears, which had torn at his heart even though they were tears of joy. She should not have to shed any because of him. And her many apologies, for something she had no fault. They showed how much she must have been troubled by what had befallen before and at Kadall. Every time she drew a quick breath he had tried to interrupt her, but there had been no opportunity.

Now she was watching Lôkhî with a mixture of alarm and curiosity, since obviously he did not appear an enemy. Since she had ceased speaking, he took the chance. “This is Lôkhî,” he explained quickly, “one of Khorazîr’s guards. He is the one responsible for my disguise.”

“Which you almost blew with this, this … – oh, I don’t have words for it,” complained the little man, yet without sounding truly angry. “What did you think by attacking the guard’s horse like that? The lad’s out cold and won’t be troubling us for a while, but the horses ran off – back to their stables, I’d reckon. Not long, and we’ll have Marek’s entire cavalry here for company. We mustn’t linger. We’ve still got to get past the gate. We –,” apparently remembering his manners, Lôkhî interrupted himself, having drawn close enough to catch a glimpse of Éowyn over Faramir’s shoulder.

He studied her for a moment, then bowed slightly. “M’lady, I’m very pleased to meet you.” Then to Faramir he said. “You have about a quarter of an hour before they’re here, I’d reckon,” he said, in a milder tone. “Guess I’ll have another look at friend guard, to make sure he’s comfortable. You are out of your mind, Dúnadan, but I daresay the reason is … well … understandable.” With a wink and a broad grin, he hobbled off.

Faramir gave Éowyn a faint smile. “I think this was a compliment,” he said, before his face turned grave. “You heard what he said. We do not have much time. I do not know where to begin. So much has happened since Kadall.”

“What happened to Iorlas?“ she asked, interrupting him. “I remember he was right beside me when I was captured...“

Faramir sighed softly, casting down his eyes at the memory of the events. “He was slain. Stabbed from behind by your captors. We lost some more men, but all in all the fight went well for us. The villagers fought bravely – or so I was told later. I passed out immediately after the arrows struck me. Ah Éowyn, you have no idea how much I have wanted to apologise since that night. When I woke some time later, and heard you had been taken, by the Snake himself by all accounts …” He shook his head.

“I was convinced it had been my fault,” he said softly. “I almost surrendered to the shadow, thinking my ill-chosen words and foolish attitude towards you, and worse, my stubborn pride that prevented me from apologising ere disaster struck had led you into mortal peril. I was such an idiot that day, giving you the impression I did not want another child. I did, and I do. I love you, never doubt that. As you said, I was simply concerned about you. The twins’ birth had been so difficult and … – it does not matter now. Back then I did not know what being concerned truly means. These past weeks have taught me, though. They have been a nightmare.”

She nodded, and he saw her eyes fill with tears again. Thinking she was referring to her imprisonment, his hand still holding her tightened slightly. But her next words shook him

“I did not think you had survived,” she said quietly. “When I woke here, all I could see was you falling, bleeding. I mourned you as one lost.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “Do not give me reason to do so again,” she said firmly.

He lifted her hand to his lips again and kissed it gently. “I will not, I promise. You see, I have people looking after me now. But Éowyn, what about you? I am afraid we will not manage to get you out of here today, as much as I yearn to. We will make a more organised attempt soon, you have my word. The garden is too well guarded, today in particular because of Widow’s Harvest. And we did not know for certain you would be riding today. We came to gather information – although I admit I hoped for you being there. And when I saw you … I knew I could not leave without having spoken with you. I know ‘tis risky, but these moments with you are worth every risk.”

His words seemed not to be going down too well with her, because her eyes narrowed. “You fool! Were you not content at dying at the Snake's hand once already?”

“He has tried to kill me more than once, and always failed,” he replied confidently. “If he tries again, again he will fail. I will not let myself get caught by him. Not again. But I had to see you, and see you are well.” A troubling thought struck him and his eyes narrowed.

“You are well, are you not? You did not injure yourself in the fall, did you?” he asked quickly, suddenly worried. “I was horrified when I saw what havoc my assault upon your guard’s horse caused. I cannot use my right arm properly yet, so throwing that peach was a bit tricky. Your left wrist seems to pain you. Let me see. I hope ‘tis not broken. What about the rest? Does anything hurt you? I would never forgive myself if I had injured you because of some rashness.” He raised his eyes from his examination of her hand, glancing at her concernedly. “And what about the baby?” he asked quietly. “Is it well?”

+

The new of Iorlas' death hit her hard. He had only being doing the task Faramir had set for him. And you were not kind to him when he tried to get you to safety,[i] she reminded herself. [i]You told him you would make sure he would never know a day of rest once he returned to Ithilien, but now he never will return. Faramir's questions about the baby broke into her thoughts.

Éowyn's eyes widened. “You know?” she whispered. Of course he knows. 'Tis not like you are a slender maid right now. Her flowing garments only partly hid her rounding figure, and he knew her well enough to notice when even when something small was different.

He nodded. “Elessar bade me look in the Palantír, and I saw how your figure had changed, though I could not be sure if what the Stone showed was true. Then when we arrived here and talked to Narejde, she confirmed my suspicions. And now that I am with you...”

Éowyn nodded. Taking one of his hands from where he had been examining her wrist, she pressed it against where she had felt the child moving earlier. The child kicked in response to the pressure, and she saw the familiar look of wonder pass over Faramir's face. “I believe the child is well,” she said gently, “though a little shaken up and upset. I should have recognized the signs at the wedding. I did wonder, which is why I brought up the subject that morning, but I did not think I was so far along already, nearly five months now.” She drew a shaky breath as he shifted his hand to follow the child's movements. “I am afraid, Faramir. Al-Jahmîr knows what he has, and every day that I remain here is one closer to the birth, and I am terrified of what will happen if I have the child here, while still his prisoner. Will he take it from me? Or kill it? Or, or... I don't know. He has hinted at things already, but even he does not seem sure of what he will do yet.”

+

Gazing into her eyes, Faramir was striken to see true fear in them. He could not recall having ever encountered her so afraid. Of course, she did not fear for her own life only now, but for that of the child as well. And his, most likely. The sight dealt him a deep stab of guilt, but also of anger. She should not have any reason to be so afraid. She should be at home with him in Ithilien, and the only slight fears and worries she should have were if the boys or their father would return from their latest expedition into the gardens unscathed, without any greater scratches or bruises from crawling through hedges or climbing trees, and clothes only slightly damp instead of soaking wet from the inspection of the frog-ponds.

Reaching up to stroke her cheek soothingly, he said, “I very much doubt he would kill the child which good fortune, in his opinion, has brought into reach of his grasp. If he wanted to get rid of it, why wait until it was born? He knows ‘tis going to be a powerful hostage, and even with his overblown confidence he must be aware of how slight his chances are at resisting the combined forces of Gondor and Rohan unless he has got something we would not wish to lose. There is you, of course, his shield, but a child might strengthen his defence.”

He drew a deep breath, gazing at her. “Still, I think I do you no favour by raising your hopes too high that everything is going to be alright. When we arrived two days ago, Narejde told us about how she fared at Al-Jahmîr’s court, years ago, and how her child was taken from her. It is likely the Snake is planning to deal with ours likewise. But we will try and prevent it ever coming to that. You will not give birth to our baby where the Snake can harm it. Whatever we can do against that happening, we shall. We – that is me and our friends here, as well as Elessar and your brother in Gondor (already on their way hither) – are working feverishly on getting you – both of you – out of here as soon as possible. I did not know you were so far along already. It makes things more difficult for us, but we shall find a solution. We must. Under no circumstances can we risk delaying until the birth is due. But we are going to need your help. Can you think of any secure way of communication? Are there people you can truly trust inside the castle, who might get in contact with us to bear messages to and fro? We need to know more about what goes on in there, about the Snake’s plans. But we also have to be very careful lest we be discovered, and you made to suffer for it.”

He frowned, his expression darkening as carefully he touched the bruises on her face. “I daresay you suffer already,” he observed softly, forcing his voice to sound calm so as not to betray the anger he felt at seeing his beloved so hurt. “Is this his doing? Rumour has it you quarrelled. Is it true? Did he dare to beat you? Is this how he treats you, after going these lengths to abduct you?”

+

“Yes, the rumor is true,” Éowyn replied. “He took me out into the gardens one evening after supper a few days ago, and soon we were quarreling. He frequently chides me for not acting the way he thinks a lady should act and for not minding my manners, but he has not shown many manners of his own.” She reached for his hand and clasped it. “But that is the worst things have become so far. Usually he will simply invite me to lunch or supper – though it is hardly an initiation I can refuse – and we will talk. Sometimes he will take my hand or stroke my hand, but he does not go farther than that.” So far, she added silently. She had not forgotten about the day he had visited her while she was in her bath, but she saw no reason to anger Faramir further or give him a new worry. He already had reason enough to loathe al-Jahmîr.

She knew Faramir well enough to know when he was angry, and she could tell that he was working hard to hold back his anger. How much would this ordeal change him? He tended to be slow to anger, but she could sense the tension in him now, and it made her sad. But perhaps she need not fear too much. His gentleness was still quick to show, especially in how he had tried to comfort her about the child. Of course the Snake wanted the child alive, if not, he had had many opportunities to rid her of it by now. He also had healers looking after her, so maybe for awhile the child was still safe from him. But that safety would not last forever, not as long as she remained in al-Jahmîr's care.

Recalling his questions about finding someone to communicate with inside the castle, she shook her head slightly. “As for finding someone to help, I cannot think of anyone in the castle who would make a good spy. I am not allowed beyond the women's quarters except under guard and with good reason. I do not trust any of the consorts with such a task. Some of them can be amiable on a good day, but give them a chance to impress or perform for the Snake and they turn on each other like dogs. I had to trust my maidservant, Miliani, with the note and necklace you sent, and so far I believe she has not betrayed me, but I do not know if she is allowed to leave the castle or if she is watched when away from me. I remember the laundress who delivered your message said that not everyone in the castle is honest.” She paused. “I do not remember her name, but Narejde and Azrahil probably do since they sent her. She seemed so afraid, though. I do not know if she would have the courage to continue relaying messages.”

Éowyn sighed and clasped his hand tighter, her frustration growing. “I feel like such a fool,” she said bitterly. “I have been here nearly a month and yet I can offer so very little to help. I do not know how the guards are positioned or even how they are divided up throughout most of the castle. I know the entrances to the women's quarters are guarded but within our quarters we are free to roam. The Snake allows me to go down to the stables, but as you can see I have a guard with me at all times then.” She stopped suddenly. “I wonder if Hazadai could be persuaded to help,” she said absently, considering this possibility for the first time. At Faramir's questioning look, she explained Hazadai's position as stablemaster and some of the things he had said about why he remained in al-Jahmîr's service.

She bit her lip. “But, if the healers forbid me from riding again – which they surely will now that I have had a spill – I doubt I will see him as frequently as I have, especially if the healers put me on bedrest. It would look strange if he came up to the castle asking to see me, and anyway, men are not allowed in the women's quarters except for a guard or servant on orders.” She went quiet again, thinking. “I wonder if Inzilbêth could help,” she said after a moment. “She is al-Jahmîr's daughter-in-law, married to his second son, Adûnakhôr. She is a sweet girl, and she gave birth to a daughter not two weeks ago. Such a pretty little baby,” she said softly, releasing Faramir's hand to run hers over her rounding figure. Breaking out of her musings, she continued. “We have spent the afternoon together several times, and I think she seems somewhat sympathetic, but I do not know if that sympathy extends to helping undermine her father-in-law. Her husband refuses to go against his father, even though he has shown that he realizes standing by him will surely end in disaster.”

She drew a breath and shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the damp ground. The mud had soaked into the back of her dress and chilled her skin. Maybe the coolness would help keep the bruising down. Her small movements suggested otherwise. She frowned suddenly as something he had said in passing came to the forefront of her thoughts. “Wait. Elessar, the Palantír, did you return to Gondor? How do you know Éomer is on his way? There has hardly been enough time to get a message to Rohan and muster and ride hither.”

+

Noticing her discomfort on the wet ground, Faramir moved to her side so that she could sit more upright and lean against him. The burnous which he had put underneath her head and upper back was soaked and wet now as well, and he put it aside. He slipped his arm round her shoulders and held her close to him, for a moment simply relishing her nearness. He noted that her hair smelled different, more strongly of some flowery perfume than he was used to, but apart from this, for a brief while he could pretend that they were back home in their gardens in Ithilien, unbothered by the Snake, simply enjoying a quiet moment together, sitting underneath a tree with sunlight and leafy shadows playing about them on the ground.

Then he drew a breath, remembering that the time they were allowed together was too short , and the moment would not last. The danger of getting caught was growing with each minute. He wondered slightly that Lôkhî had not sounded the alarm yet.

“There was no need send word to Rohan,” he replied, gazing at her and reaching up to pick a blade of grass out of her hair. “Éomer stayed in Minas Tirith. I went there as soon as I was fit to travel. Khorazîr had organised a passage on the ship of a corsair.” At her look of slight alarm he smiled faintly. “Captain
Azrubâr, as he calls himself, is a sworn enemy of the Snake, and he has safely delivered us to Gondor and back – safely, and more swiftly than I had dared hope for. I felt guilty about journeying thither instead of coming to Ihimbra right away, but I daresay the journey was worth the effort.”

Very briefly, he told her of the plans he had made with the King and the other members of the council. “Soon, Elessar will arrive here with Imrahil and your brother. Túrin wanted to come as well, naturally, but he has other duties back home now. He and Falastur are taking over my office while Elessar and I are away – yes, I know,” he added upon her scandalised look, “this is what I thought as well. Anyway, together with Queen Arwen they are going to look after the realm. But this is not the only thing which binds Túrin to Minas Tirith right now. Vorondil is going to receive a sibling soon.”

Seeing her smile knowingly, he nodded. “I reckon Visilya has been suspecting something for quite some time without telling her husband, very much like another lady I know.”

He tensed and looked up in alarm when he heard a brief whistle like the warning call of a blackbird, followed by the sound of footsteps through high grass. Lôkhî appeared between the trees. “We must be off,” said the small man anxiously. “It can’t be long now until we get unpleasant company here. I wonder the guards haven’t checked on us yet, too.”

“Give us a few minutes longer, Lôkhî,” pleaded Faramir. “There are some matters we need to discuss still.”

Lôkhî gave him a rather exasperated glance. “Hurry,” he said curtly, before with a sigh and slight shake of his head he withdrew beyond the low-hanging branches again, muttering something about love addling people’s brains and annihilating their proper sense of danger.

“We must find another opportunity to meet, and talk longer,” Faramir said hurriedly. “I shall forward to Narejde and Azrahil what you have mentioned about the laundress – I think she goes by the name of Izren – and Hazadai the stablemaster. They are likely to know him – especially Azrahil. Speaking of him, I knew about Inzilbêth and her baby. I saw you assisting her at the birth when I looked into the Stone. Also, Azrahil bade me to try and convey a message to her through you, should I get the opportunity to speak with you. He still loves her dearly, and desperately wishes to meet her and talk, although how this could be managed I do not know. If you can and deem it appropriate, tell her of him. Maybe, if she wants to meet him as well, she can think of a way of doing so which we could profit from also, if only to forward information to each other.

“Also, at the moment we have a prisoner, formerly the captain of Al-Jahmîr’s personal guard. His name is Sakalthôr. He was at Tolfalas as well, and already back then had doubts about Marek’s plans concerning me. We caught him during a sea-battle on our way to Ihimbra. He seems willing to work against his former master out of fear for his family, which is threatened by the Snake. So far he has proven trustworthy, although I have not quite made up my mind about him yet. His wife – I think her name is Hanîje – works for the tailor. She might be able to help us as well. I daresay nobody would look askance at you visiting the tailor rather frequently now to have new garments made for you and our child. And speaking of children – when I mentioned I had met your brother I think I could read the question in you eyes.”

He reached for her hand again and clasped it. “Our boys where in the City, too, and I spent some days with them.” He felt her hold his hand more tightly and draw a shaky breath. He, too, felt a lump in his throat which made speaking difficult. He drew her closer to himself, holding her gently. Suddenly he felt guilty that he had been able to visit their children, while she had been forced to stay away from them. “You would have been so proud of them, melda,” he told her softly, stroking her hair with his other hand. “The twins have grown so much and are much more active now. You remember the green tunics you embroidered last winter? They do not fit anymore. Meriadoc surprised me by talking like a waterfall one day, and quite eloquently, too. And Elboron is all the big brother, looking after the little ones. He even looked after me, sensing how deeply upset I was, and tried his best to cheer me up again. But all three miss you greatly. Peregrin did not want to let me go again, pleading with me under tears.” He shook his head sadly, swallowing hard. “It so tore at my heart having to leave them again. They all expect our speedy return, though. I promised them to bring you back and would not want to disappoint them. They send their love to you, and even made you some drawings about their adventures in Rohan – well, Peregrin and Elboron did. Meriadoc ate most of the paint. I have them here with me, but perhaps it would not be wise if you kept them on your person in case you are searched or examined.”

+

“Show me them!” Éowyn demanded, her voice cracking. So, he had been in Gondor! And he had been with their children! Jealously weighed on her heart. He had been lucky enough to return to their little ones, if only for a short time, while she had had no other choice but to stay here with the Snake. You would have done the same if you had been in his place, part of her reasoned, while at the same time another part argued that she would have done differently. As he took a flat parcel from under his shirt, her mind went back over what he had said. No surprise that the boys were growing quickly, but that Meriadoc was speaking more, oh, that was good. She had begun to worry some at his rather quiet manner, but perhaps he thought that Peregrin chattered enough for the both of them. Peregrin, her sweet little one, in tears? That was a deep hurt. And Elboron was indeed acting like his father more and more each day, though he had known far too much sadness for one so young still, and most of it the work of al-Jahmîr.

Her thoughts broke as Faramir unwrapped the oilskin and took out the drawings, handing them to her. She smiled a wobbly smile as she looked at the various pictures. Perhaps that brown circle with legs was a horse, or maybe a dog, or a deer. There were other pictures of what looked like people, tall people, with smaller people around them. And then there were more obscure drawings, crooked green lines, yellow dots, red squiggles. Here and there an occasional smudged fingerprint could be seen. Éowyn could imagine her boys sitting around the papers, getting as much paint on their fingers and clothes – and faces, from what Faramir had said of Meriadoc – as they were on the papers.

“They're wonderful,” she said after several moments. “I wish I could keep them, but you are right. 'Tis likely the healers will want to see me immediately, and I doubt I would have any time alone to hide them.”

Reluctantly, she handed the drawings back to him, looking away as he wrapped them in the oilskin. “I will do what I can here,” she said. “I have seen the tailor already for clothes of my own, but not for the baby. I did not want to give credit to any thought of remaining here until the birth.” After a pause she continued, “As for Azrahil and Inzilbêth, that is a delicate matter. She and I have spoken of him before, and she has said that she must think of him as one dead. She seems content with Adûnakhôr, especially now that their child is born, but she has admitted that she still has feelings for Azrahil, though not as she once did, and I doubt in the way he still wants her to feel for him.” She sighed. “I do not think it is wise to raise his hopes too much concerning her. If I have the chance, I will speak with her again concerning him and see what she thinks of a possible meeting, but I do not think it will go as he wants.”

She flinched as the blackbird call came again ahead of the distant but growing sound of hurried hoofbeats.

“We must be off, now!” Lôkhî urged, coming to stand beside Faramir. “Three riders are in sight.”

Éowyn gripped Faramir's hand tightly and kissed him swiftly. “Go,” she pleaded. “Go now, or they will capture you, and then all will be lost. Do not make me mourn you again.”

+

Before Faramir had a chance to reply to her, he felt a brisk tug on his tunic. “She’s right,” hissed Lôkhî, not caring to keep anxiety as well as deep disapproval about Faramir’s behaviour out of his voice. “Don your burnous again so that they don’t see your scimitar, and get out, back to the hedge. I’ll try and cover you. We can still make it, if we hurry.”

The hoofbeat was louder now as Faramir stood and struggled into the wide, ragged garment. It was partly soaked with mud. Leaning down again, he kissed Éowyn once more, passionately, almost desperately. He knew he should have been leaving minutes ago, should not tarry to add to her worries, and yet, now that the parting was so imminent he could not bring it over himself to turn his back on her and disappear. Part of him was surprised at the power of this unreasonable self which so easily defeated all the warnings he was keenly aware of. He could not leave, not without knowing for sure she was being looked after well. Also, there was a small but potent voice reminding him that this meeting with her, this kiss might be the very last. So easily some evil could befall her while the Snake’s prisoner. Like with his sons, he suddenly was painfully aware that this forceful, hasty parting might be a final one.

Another pull on his garments, followed by a slight whack of the cane. “Bloody idiot, you’ll get all of us
killed. Oh bugger!”

Tearing himself away from Éowyn with great effort, he finally stood and turned to follow Lôkhî’s shocked gaze. “Too late,” the small man muttered as he peered through the low branches. “They’ve spotted us, and there’s also guards peering over the hedge now. Bloody fool, this is going to be really dangerous.” Drawing himself up before Faramir which looked impressive despite his low height, his dark eyes burning with anger but also fear, he snarled. “Listen now, tark. Perhaps you don’t care if you get out of here alive or not, but I do. And so does your lady. Therefore, you’ll pull yourself together now, and do what I say. We won’t get out of here by running – would look too suspicious anyway –, so we must continue to play our parts. You’ll keep your mouth shut and your eyes down, and you’ll stay away from her and leave the talking to me. And you’ll pray they buy our story. Understood? Good. Off you go.”

With that, he gave Faramir a push to force him through the branches. Hunching his back again and leaning heavily onto his stick, he followed behind, and they made their way, as inconspicuously as possible, away from the tree. Faramir tried to catch a last brief glimpse of Éowyn, but now the leaves hid her features from view. Instead, he could see three horsemen approach at a swift canter. Two wore the livery of Al-Jahmîr’s household guard, the other was clad in plainer attire, which nevertheless bore the insignia of the Snake. He was an excellent horseman, Faramir noted, and appeared to be occupying an office of some import, although judging from his garments he looked like he was working outside instead of in the castle. Faramir wondered if perhaps he was a gamekeeper or the master of the orchards – or maybe even the stable-master Éowyn had mentioned, because he fitted her description fairly well.

The two guards were armed with spears and scimitars, and were eyeing the two peasants suspiciously as they drew near. One called to them to halt. They continued for a few paces, and when the command was issued again they stopped. Lôkhî stood tensely, gripping the handle of his cane with both hands and leaning upon the stick. Faramir bowed his head and hung his shoulders, suddenly and keenly aware of their danger which before he had tried to ignore. With a shock he realised that he had forgotten to veil his face. His heart was pounding forcefully now. What if they were questioned – unlikely, in fact, if not? What if he was recognised? During the sea-battle, Lôkhî had proven a deadly fighter, and Faramir was certain they would manage to take on the two guards and their companion. But with the other watchmen milling about beyond the hedge, their chances of getting out of the orchard without the alarm being raised were slight. And once the alarm was up, and half Ihimbra hunting them … They would be caught. And brought before the Snake. And … He did not want to think further. He remembered only too well how he had suffered under the Snake’s malice while his prisoner on the island. And what evil he could wreak having both his and Éowyn’s life in his hands, and that of their child, he did not want to imagine.

Lôkhî was right. He was an idiot. Éowyn was worried sick now because of his folly. And so, if he was honest with himself, was he. Never before had he been so afraid for his own life. What if they killed him before her eyes, for real this time? The little ones back home, he would have broken his promise to them. What …?

Another whack of the cane. “Mind your manners now, lad,” came Lôkhî’s warning voice, in his old crone cackle. “The masters guards are going to ask us a few questions.”


+

Leaning on one elbow, Éowyn saw the riders approaching and recognized Hazadai and two other guards. They had spotted her and the others as well, and angled in their direction. Go, you fool man! What good did Faramir think dying would do here? She felt the panic rising in her. The guards would detain the two “peasants” and question them, perhaps even take them up into the castle itself, and if the Snake took an interest in them and came to ask questions of his own... She felt light-headed suddenly, dizzy.

And then the riders were upon them, Hazadai already off his horse before the animal came to a halt. “Are you hurt?” he asked, kneeling beside her. The two guards busied themselves with the peasants, shouting at them to get back and show their hands. Seeing her glances in that direction, he added, “Do not worry. The guards will take care of them.”

And that is what worries me, Éowyn thought. Forcing herself to look away, she raised a trembling left arm. “My wrist and ankle hurt,” she said. “I fell on my left side and knocked myself out for a few minutes, I think. Nothing feels broken.”

Hazadai took her wrist and felt it carefully, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Sprained,” he declared. He moved to feel her ankle through her boot and said the same for it. “Though I think the healers will want a more thorough examination, especially concerning the child. They have already been sent for and will be waiting for you in your chambers.”

Éowyn nodded, and at the unspoken question said quietly, “I think the child is a little shaken, but otherwise unharmed.” She sneaked a look at where one of the guards was crouching next to where his unconscious fellow lay; the other stood listening to Lôkhî, who was hunched over again and gesturing with his cane.

“What happened?” Hazadai asked, leaning back on his heels.

Éowyn blinked, trying to remember the moments before the fall. “We were simply riding along,” she said after a moment, “and the colt had been spooky nearly the whole time at the sound of the wind and the fruit falling. One moment everything was fine, and the next the colt was charging into my horse and panicking.”

The stablemaster sighed. “I knew he wasn't to be trusted yet. He ran back to his stall, all lathered and wild-eyed. Your mare returned much slower. Her knees are torn up, but I think with rest and care she'll heal well.”

Éowyn nodded. “I doubt I would come riding anyway. The healers will surely ban me from riding after this,” she said sadly.

“I'm sorry it had to come to it like this, though,” Hazadai replied. “But, perhaps it's for the best,” he added softly. He looked up as more hoofbeats drew closer. “Well, looks like he did decide to show up,” he muttered.

“Who?” Éowyn asked, unable to turn to see the approaching riders. One of the riders hailed them, and his voice chilled her. That voice she had dreaded hearing since she woke. She looked at where Faramir stood and saw that the guard had turned and appeared to be waiting for the newcomers. She could not see Faramir's expression at this distance, did not want to see the look on his face. She knew he was quite capable of keeping himself under control, even when angry, but then again, this was the first time he had been in the Snake's presence since she had been made prisoner.

Suddenly, the orchard was gone and all she saw before her eyes was a village burning in the night, the flames again hot on her face. She saw Faramir running toward her, and then he was falling, bleeding, dying, and this time her heart told her he would not return. No, no... Her heart was pounding now, and the light-headedness was overwhelming. She heard the horses stop a few feet from her, and then the thud of boots as the men dismounted. The Snake called to them again, and she let out a long breath and fell into blackness.

+

“So, you tell me you just came over to help?” asked the guard once more, eyeing the two “peasants” keenly. Faramir kept his head down, his gaze on the grass, nevertheless aware of every small movement of the mail-clad man and his companion.

“You know you are forbidden to enter this part of the orchard, and for good reason,” the guard went on angrily. “We don’t want you to go about molesting the Master’s guests. How’s Roshin?” he then inquired of his companion.

“Knocked himself out on the ground,” came the reply, “but I don’t think he’s injured badly. Looks like those two did look after him, like the woman claimed, because he’s got a cool wet cloth on his brow and a bundle of rags under his head. And he’s got his stuff on him still, so I don’t think those were after emptying his pockets.”

“I hope they didn’t molest the lady, either. If anything befell her, the Master is going to be furious. Wouldn’t want to be in Roshin’s shoes if it turns out the accident was his fault.”

“Aye, he’d wish he’d hit his head somewhat harder and not woken up again. Anyway, Hazadai is looking after her now. He’ll make sure she is comfortable, at least, if those two did not help her.”

“I told you, masters,” fell in Lôkhî, wringing his hands and taking a tentative step towards the guard, to draw his attention from Faramir who he was watching with a slight frown. Faramir gave him a brief appreciative glance for his thoughtfulness concerning the tending of Éowyn’s guard. So the man who had approached Éowyn with a look of genuine concern on his features was indeed the stable-master? He looked a decent, thoughtful fellow. Recalling what she had said about him, he marked him as one to approach again concerning her rescue. Should he himself survive the hours to come …

“We only came to help,” Lôkhî went on, in almost a whine. “My lad here, he heard them horses, and then came crying there had been a terrible accident, with the lady falling and the young man here, too. He’s a good lad, even if he’s a bit slow. But there weren’t no others to help, and so we had to go. You understand this, good sirs, don’t you? You wouldn’t have left them lying on the cold wet ground like this, either, would you, masters? Not with the mud everywhere and especially not the fine lady with hair like gold. It’s not good lying on the cold wet ground after them rains. I tell you, my back, it hurt me somewhat badly this morning because of all this cold and wet and …”

“Hush, woman,” interrupted the guard, holding up a gloved hand. “Hold your tongue until the Master arrives.”

“The master, lords?” asked Lôkhî, with another swift but now decidedly angry glance at Faramir. “You mean Lord Al-Jahmîr himself.”

“The very,” replied the guard with a grin, obviously mistaking the other’s expression for awe and fear. “And there he comes.” He pointed to where another small group of horsemen was approaching through the trees. The foremost rider raised a hand and hailed them. Faramir’s heart missed a beat at the sound of that hated voice. He had tensed already with apprehension when Al-Jahmîr had been mentioned, but the sensation rushing through him now was unlike anything he had felt before: cold anger and hot fury, pure hatred, fear, the desire to strike at the other, to hurt him, and the urge to run to get out of his reach and out of danger rising up in him, battling each other, until hate prevailed. Instinctively, his hand wandered to the hilt of his scimitar hidden underneath the burnous. The guards had turned in the direction of the newcomers, and so he dared to risk a brief glance at the riders.

There he was, the Snake himself. He looked different from when he had last seen him, on the deck of a ship heading to the south with the Gondorian navy chasing him; just after a fierce, desperate duel with Faramir the latter would never have survived but for the timely intervening of the King. Al-Jahmîr had been a hunted man then, and the stress and privations of the previous months had shown on his features and his attire. Now he looked different: he was richly clad and well-groomed, and rode with a confidence and swagger he had no longer displayed in the last days of Faramir’s captivity. He gave the impression of a man who knew were he belonged, who feared nothing, and who was wont to command and be obeyed. Faramir felt the hatred increase, if that was possible. He had never thought he would be able to loathe another human being to vehemently and passionately. Even though he had considered what he might do when he met the man who had stolen what was dearest to him, all these thoughts had been purely hypothetical. But this was real. Al-Jahmîr was coming towards him right now, reining his horse to dismount. This was real, and he felt utterly unprepared for the encounter, overwhelmed by emotions alien to him in their alarming intensity.

Unprepared, yet determined at the same time. His fear was gone. A reckless, dangerous desire to strike at the man now tossing the reins of his horse to one of his companions with a haughty gesture had taken hold of him. He almost wanted to be recognised now, to see the shock on the Snake’s hated features when he revealed his identity and reclaimed what was rightfully his. He drew himself up, his left hand gripping the sheath of his scimitar and his right reaching for the hilt.

A sharp pain shot through his legs when Lôkhî’s walking-stick collided with his shins. This time, the small man had used full force. “Don’t stand there gawping, boy, bow before the lord,” he hissed, adding a cuff with his hand to the back of Faramirs head.

He gave Lôkhî a furious glance. He would do anything but not bow before the Snake. “I said, bow!” the small man repeated forcefully, dealing out another blow with the cane. He himself was bent almost to the ground, one hand holding his back as if it pained him.

Al-Jahmîr only gave them a brief glance. “I will deal with them later,” he told the guard watching them and disappeared between the branches. Faramir had noted his look of concern, and felt hot jealousy strive for mastery with his hate and anger. Some of his agitation must have been showing in his face, because their guard suddenly remarked, “Hey, what’s wrong with you, boy? You’re all pale. I hope you haven’t been doing any mischief to the lady. If you have, you’ve got all reason to be afraid. But otherwise I don’t think you need fear the master. He’ll be relieved if his lady is unhurt, and won’t deal with you too harshly.”

Faramir gave him a burning glance. His lady indeed! “He’s eaten too many peaches, the foolish lad,” said Lôkhî. “I told him not to, but he’s a bit slow, you see, from falling off the cart when he was little. So he stuffed himself with fruit. Maybe even ate a rotten one. They make you sick, you know. My sister, she ate one once and nearly died of it. Are you feeling sick, lad?” he inquired of Faramir, who nodded – quite truthfully. “See, that’s what comes from not listening to your granny.”

Faramir was hardly listening to him indeed, but instead straining his ears to what was spoken underneath the tree. He wished Lôkhî would cease his chattering, but knew he was doing it to keep the guards distracted. Through the fluttering leaves, Faramir could descry Hazadai pointing to Éowyn’s left wrist and ankle. He could not catch what was being said, but surmised he was explaining what he had found out about her injuries. Éowyn did not seem to move. He recalled her initial reaction to waking from unconsciousness and thinking him Al-Jahmîr bending over her. Did she now feign unconsciousness for not having to deal with her captor? Or was she truly senseless, due to anxiety and fear for his life? She must have heard about the Snake’s arrival. His heart beat faster, worry now more prominent than hatred for the Umbarian.

After another brief exchange, he saw Al-Jahmîr straighten again. “Stay with her. I need to talk to these peasants before we return,” he told the stable-master briskly and brushing aside the branches, approached the small group. Two of his men had lifted the still unconscious Roshin onto a horse in front of another man. Al-Jahmîr gave him a dark glance, then turned to the soldier standing to attention next to the “peasants”. Faramir lowered his gaze, aware of Lôkhî’s tense stance. Like him, the small man was ready to sell their lives dearly should they be discovered. But unlike Lôkhî, Faramir felt sorely tempted to peck a fight with the Snake on his own accord.

Curtly questioning the guardsman, Al-Jahmîr listened to the story Lôkhî had told the other, of how they had heard the horses scream and seen the guard and the lady fall, and how “the lad” had dashed off to look after the people, regardless of the warning not to stray beyond the hedge. “They did do some good for Roshin, it seems,” the guard ended, “and without pinching anything, too. Don’t know about the lady, though.”

“She is fairly well, but unconscious,” said Al-Jahmîr, studying Lôkhî and Faramir who still kept his gaze down and his shoulders hunched. “Hazadai said it must have been the stress. She passed out while he was already with her. Her injuries are not life-threatening, and she has not been robbed, either.” He turned to Lôkhî. “So, woman, you say you witnessed the accident and set yourself above my expressed restrictions concerning your allowed movements in these grounds to look after the injured?”

Lôkhî gave a shrug, and without meeting the other’s eyes replied, “Well, lord, seeing that she was a lady so fine, my boy here, he was frightfully afraid she’d done herself some harm. He’s done a bad fall hisself when he was little, you see, and thus he’s very emotional when others hurt themselves so. Very sensitive, he is, but not as sensible, I’m afraid. I did scold him after he’d run off, but seeing those poor folks on the ground, I did pity him, and so we helped them as best we could.”

During Lôkhî’s speech, Al-Jahmîr’s gaze had several times flicked over Faramir’s features. Each moment the Dúnadan had reckoned with a glint of recognition, had tensed, but there had been no sign of the Snake realising who was standing in front of him.

“You should be punished for breaking my laws,” the Umbarian declared, watching their tense expressions with obvious enjoyment. “But since it appears that your timely arrival provided some comfort for the injured, I will forgo punishment. You will leave the orchards and not return again for Widow’s Harvest, however.”

Lôkhî bowed deeply again, indicating to Faramir to do likewise, which again he refused. “Thank you, thank you, my lord. You are very merciful.”

Al-Jahmîr gave an airy wave of his hand Faramir felt the acute urge to hit him for – to then having to reign this desire and struggle to keep his face impassive when the Snake turned to him. He saw the dark eyes narrow slightly as the Umbarian looked at him. But still no flicker of recognition. He was so close now. A swift stab of his dagger, and the Snake would be gone. And the guards will kill you, and Éowyn. And the baby. You must control yourself, as difficult as it is now. Your time will come. Wait. Calm down. Wait.

He gave a slight jerk when he felt Lôkhî grip his right arm and hold it tightly, to prevent him from reacting upon his impulse, apparently. Al-Jahmîr turned away from him to where Hazadai was stepping through the branches accompanied by a guard, carrying Éowyn in his arms. She was indeed unconscious, and the sight tore painfully at Faramir’s heart. So close she was, and yet entirely out of his reach.

“I will take her before me on my horse, Hazadai,” said Al-Jahmîr.

The stable-master gave a nod and approached the steed, but then halted when Al-Jahmîr held up a hand. He stepped to Éowyn and drawing a small knife from his the silver-studded belt he wore over the sash round his waist, he reached for a strand of her hair and cut it. Faramir felt Lôkhî’s grip on his arm tighten painfully, while he himself stood frozen. How did he dare to touch her like this! Her hair was not the Snake’s to trim as he pleased.

Replacing the knife, Al-Jahmîr turned back to Faramir, holding up the lock so that the sunlight fell fully on the golden strands. “Since you were so moved by this lady’s beauty to disregard my laws in order to look after her, take this as a reward

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Last edited by Lady_of_Rohan on Sun 04 Nov , 2007 1:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri 02 Nov , 2007 6:04 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
When he recalled the situation later, Faramir did not remember how he had managed not to strike at Al-Jahmîr in that moment. Lôkhî’s hand was still on his arm, but he had loosened his grip, staring at the Umbarian and Faramir in turn, his face despite the heavy dye deadly pale.

“Take it, lad,” he whispered hoarsely. “Take it.”

Faramir raised his eyes and for the first time since many months he gazed into the Snake’s. Al-Jahmîr frowned slightly. He gave his opposite a questioning glance, but still there was no flicker of recognition.

“Take it, and thank Lord Al-Jahmîr, boy,” Lôkhî muttered again, even more imploringly and desperately now, his fingers digging in the Dúnadan’s arm again. Faramir could sense how his hand trembled slightly. He himself was shaking with the effort of keeping his emotions in check. His hand twitched towards his weapon, and with an effort he had not imagined possible he restrained it, and force it to take the lock out of Al-Jahmîr’s, his fingers closing around the soft hairs.

Lôkhî bowed again deeply, and this time simply drew him down with him. “We’re deeply honoured, lord,” he said. “And please forgive my boy here. He’s just so in awe of you great folks that he’s forgotten his manners, and swallowed his tongue, too, most like. Thank you, thank you.”

“It is alright, granny,” returned Al-Jahmîr nonchalantly. “Take your grandson and leave now, and next time see to it that he does not set foot again where he is not permitted. Guards, take them away, and then see to the people milling about behind that hedge. I don’t want word of this making the round in town by this evening. Also, I want to see the men set to watching the hedge.”

The guard saluted. “Come on, off you go,” he said, ushering the “peasants” on with his spear. Faramir did not move. He was watching Al-Jahmîr mount his horse and hold out his arms to take Éowyn in front of him. Jealousy and hatred again washed through him, and this time his hand did reach for the scimitar. Again she was taken from him, again he was powerless to interfere. And perhaps this was the last he would ever see of her, her fair form resting in the arms of the Snake. He would never have thought himself capable of emotions of hate and anger this powerful, their intensity startling and frightening but also invigorating him.

“Ouch.” He drew a sharp breath when a stick hit his injured shoulder – not Lôkhî’s cane, this time, but the shaft of the guard’s spear. “Away with you, churl,” the man said curtly. Nodding towards Faramir’s shoulder, he added, “Serves you right if this hurts. Come on. Stop gawping at the Master and his lady. Have you never seen a fair-haired woman before? Get moving, sharpish, or I’ll use the nasty end of this spear on you!”

Slowly, they set in motion, but they had only gone a few paces when, “Wait!” Al-Jahmîr’s voice rang out behind them. They stopped short. A swift glance at Lôkhî showed him ready to draw his sword and leap at the guards. Hoofbeat announced Al-Jahmîr riding up to them, flanked by Hazadai and his guards.

Faramir kept his gaze down again, knowing that another glance of Éowyn held by the Snake would annihilate what restraint and self-control he was still able to maintain. The horse was reined in front of him, tossing its long mane, the tassels and golden fittings on its bridle swirling over its eyes. “You there, boy,” Al-Jahmîr addressed him. “What did you say your name was again?”

“They did not give any names, lord,” the guard who had originally questioned them replied.

“His name’s Igmil, but we just call him Mîk,” said Lôkhî swiftly. “Or Nûph, when he’s been foolish again.”

“Where are you from?” inquired Al-Jahmîr, eyeing Faramir keenly again.

“We live in Ihimbra in my daughter’s house near the fish-market, lord. But we hail from further south. And his father was a sailor as went to sea, and came from foreign parts. That’s why he’s so tall. I only wish he hadn’t fallen off the cart when he truly was a mîk. He’d be far more help ‘round the house and –”

Al-Jahmîr held up a hand. “Enough. Leave now. It may be I need to talk to you again about what befell today, to determine if the guard is to blame.”

“What we can do to help, we will,” Lôkhî assured him, and watched with relief when Al-Jahmîr turned his steed and spurred it into a gentle trot. The mounted guards followed suit, and those on foot ushered on the “peasants”. From the corner of his eyes, Faramir noticed that the stable-master lingered for a brief moment before following his master. He caught a keen, thoughtful glance from dark eyes.

“Come on, we haven’t got all day,” snarled the guard as he gave Faramir a slight push, and they finally set off towards the hedge.

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri 16 Nov , 2007 9:36 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“Are these yours?” inquired the guard after they had passed through a narrow gate cut in the hedge and had reached the tree under which Faramir and Lôkhî had left their baskets. “Right, take them and we’ll bring you to the gate. I remind you again that you’re supposed to keep your mouths shut about what happened here, you understand? We’ll find out if you didn’t. The Master has been dealing very leniently with you, so don’t make the mistake of squandering his goodwill. You, boy, take these baskets now!”

Faramir obeyed and burdening himself with the half-filled baskets and the pannier, he followed behind Lôkhî and the guard, resisting the urge to turn and cast a glance over the hedge beyond which the horsemen were returning to the castle now. The thought of Éowyn in the Snake’s arms, her head resting against his shoulder was still sending waves of jealousy and anger through him, and he was revelling in these emotions he so seldom allowed to govern him.

He was not the only one seething with barely contained fury, it turned out. When he and Lôkhî had been ushered through the gate, and after another short speech from the guards who sent them on their way were plodding along the road, he could tell by the other’s stance that Lôkhî was not in an amiable mood. Faramir did not care, still too preoccupied with his own troubled emotions.

But at least a sense of caution had returned now, his ranger-training taking over almost routinely, causing him to check very thoroughly that they were not being followed by any guards or other spies of Al-Jahmîr’s. Without any sign from Khorazîr and the others, they left the road at the first opportunity, heading up a narrow path that wound steeply uphill along the border of an old, untended vineyard, the vines overgrown with honeysuckle and clematis, young shoots of stone-oak and arbutus springing up between them. With the sun having eaten away most of the mists and burning full force upon the red-earthed ground, Faramir soon grew hot. The baskets and pannier were burdensome, growing heavier by the minute, and paining his injured shoulder, so that at length he halted next to a low stonewall shaded by pines and an ancient oak-tree and let the pannier slide to the ground. Several peaches spilled from the bags, tumbling down the steep path.

Lôkhî saw and stopped as well, his eyes narrowing as he scowled at his companion. “Right, just leave them lying in the path,” he stated angrily when Faramir discarded the uncomfortable headdress that made his tangled hair itch and wiped his sweaty face with the veil, leaving a smear of brown dye on the cloth. “Perhaps you could also attach a note to one of these trees to lead any pursuit in the right direction to our hiding-place.”

Under normal circumstances, Faramir would have hastened to pick up the fruit again – indeed, he would have been careful not to spill them at all – knowing that Lôkhî was perfectly right. But in his present mood this reasoning escaped him. Even worse, the tone the words had been uttered in fuelled his already simmering anger. He knew he was being unreasonable, hurtful even, when he returned, “Well, perhaps you should pick them up, then. ‘Tis not like you have been doing much to gather them in the first place.”

Lôkhî’s eyes flashed. With a growl, he took a step towards Faramir, drawing himself up so that, because he was standing on considerably higher ground, he could look him squarely in the eyes. His cane he had gripped tightly with both hands. “Listen now, tark,” he thundered, looking rather impressive in his fury despite his ridiculous disguise, “without me, you wouldn’t be standing here at all. You’d have thrown yourself at Al-Jahmîr and gotten yourself killed. And your lady, too, most like. Had I known you’re such a bloody idiot, I wouldn’t have agreed to accompany you!”

“So, I am an idiot, then?” Faramir returned hotly, the anger he had barely contained all the time while facing Al-Jahmîr now finally breaking loose. A tiny voice of reason reminded him that Lôkhî was the altogether wrong person to direct this outbreak at, but it remained unheeded. “Tell me what you would have done? Waited behind that hedge to let the riders pass? We came to gather information, and this is what I have done. And I daresay I learned more from Éowyn in these short minutes than what chatting with the guards or other peasants would have yielded.”

“Ah, so that’s ‘gathering information’ now. To me, it looked like kissing and flirting with your sweetheart. I can’t believe you attacked this guard! You’re completely out of your bloody mind, you know that? Didn’t you consider that this would be a sure way to invite unwanted guests? Tell me, did you think at all before you threw that peach – with your head, I mean? And left to your own devices, you wouldn’t have lasted an instant in front of the Snake. You’d have betrayed your identity as soon as you saw him, playing hero, most like.”

“At least I would not have bowed to him like the lowliest of his slaves. You almost licked his boots back there.”

“Do you believe I enjoyed that? Do you have any idea how sick that made me? But even lordship here must understand that sometimes you simply have to swallow your pride and humble yourself in order to survive.”

“Ah, so I did not swallow my pride when I watched him take her away – again? Apparently you do not know what it means to love someone.”

Lôkhî looked deeply hurt at this accusation, but did not reply to it directly, choosing to repay Faramir in another way. “Well, you didn’t give much thought to your beloved’s feelings back there, either, did you?” he asked acidly. “She was far more reasonable than yourself, imploring you to leave. But nay, you stayed on, despite better counsel. Very caring and considerate of you, I must say. She must have been beside herself with fear and worry, although I don’t really understand why she should be fretting – you don’t seem to be worrying about her, either.”

Faramir took a step towards him. “Are you implying she is better off where she is now?”

“I didn’t say that, did I? But now that you mention it … Well, fact is Al-Jahmîr didn’t cause an accident for her guard and herself by throwing peaches at them. And he seemed genuinely concerned about her. So …” He shrugged.

Like previously with the Snake, Faramir felt an acute, overwhelming desire to strike the other. Part of him recoiled with shame and disgust at this new, formerly unknown feeling, and deep down he knew this part was right. But he did not heed it. He relented, however, at the sight of the stout cane Lôkhî who apparently was expecting some kind of attack had half raised to defend himself with. Thus Faramir chose another tactic.

“Why do you not simply admit you were afraid?” he asked nastily, fully aware of the fact that few Southrons would admit fear, as they considered it a sure way to diminish their honour. But he wanted to repay Lôkhî for his previous remark, and repay him well.

Lôkhî gave an angry snort. “Tell me you weren’t! I wasn’t afraid, tark, I was bloody scared. I nearly soiled my trousers when I saw Al-Jahmîr arrive, because I knew that if I didn’t manage to keep you in check, you’d get us both killed with your bleeding recklessness and folly. There, you have my confession. I’ve never been so damn scared in my entire life. Perhaps you don’t care if you live to see another day, but I do. You have no idea how bloody lucky we were that Al-Jahmîr didn’t recognise you – and you almost blew that, too.”

“How fortunate you had your cane handy,” returned Faramir with cold fury, recalling the repeated blows which he was certain had resulted in a number of bruises. His shins still hurt, as did his shoulder.

Lôkhî lashed out with the stout stick and it hit the nearest tree full force. A shower of brown leaves cascaded down onto the path. “You can bet on that,” he thundered. “And I wish I had hit you harder, to beat some sense into you again. You should be truly grateful to me for saving your bloody life, but no, lordship prefers to play the hero and sets himself up alone against Al-Jahmîr’s entire bleeding army.”

“You have no idea what this is all about, have you?” Faramir countered. “You thought we were off onto a little expedition in funny disguise to fool the Snake’s guards and chat a bit with Ihimbra townsfolk. But this is not what we came here for. This is no fun, Lôkhî, this is deadly serious. My wife’s life is in danger, and so is the life of our unborn child. Even you should understand what that means for me, because contrary to your assumptions, I do care about her. If we take no risks upon ourselves, we will not accomplish to rescue them. I for one am willing to endanger my own life in order to protect theirs. If you lack the courage for such dangerous missions, you may be excused next time.”

Lôkhî’s eyes flashed dangerously. Faramir had deliberately lashed out at his pride, knowing how to hurt the other. “You call me a coward?” he asked in a low voice.

Holding his gaze, Faramir gave a slight shrug. Part of him was alarmed about how much he enjoyed this argument. It felt like pure relief after the tension of the past hour. “I think I do,” he replied evenly.

He knew he had overstepped an invisible line. Lôkhî’s face went pale, the hand holding the cane twitching, but the next instant both men spun round towards a high, whistling sound, to then jump in shock and dismay when a slender knife buried itself in the oak-tree behind them.

“May we join your little picnic?” came Mezlâr’s voice from below, and jumping over the stone wall he strode towards them up the path, picking clinging trailers from his garments. Behind him, more people issued from between the tangled vines behind the wall, with Azrahil and his lioness bringing up the rear. Apparently the two groups had met, although there was no sign of Narejde and several others of the men, including Faramir’s rangers and young Murâd. Stooping, Mezlâr picked up one of the fallen peaches, and after rubbing it against his garments, took a bite from the fruit while approaching the tree to retrieve his knife. Khorazîr was walking behind him, looking very unlike himself in his plain shepherd’s attire.

“Well, well, what is the matter with you two?” he asked, frowning up at Faramir and Lôkhî. “We heard you from almost a mile distance. Things went well, did they not?” The addressed exchanged a furious gaze.

“Aye, things went fabulously, lord,” snarled Lôkhî sarcastically. “He will tell you. Don’t forget to include what a coward I am, tark.” With that, he spun round and continued up the path, furiously beating at the vegetation to both sides with his cane. Khorazîr stared after him with a bewildered expression, before turning to Faramir. “Well, what happened?”

“Ask him,” the Dúnadan replied with an angry glance at the little man’s back. “I am not in the mood now.” Taking up the panniers again, he set off after Lôkhî.

“Not in the mood?” demanded Khorazîr, placing a hand on his shoulder to hold him back. “Dúnadan, do you have any idea how we worried when we saw a company of mounted guards arrive after you had been in there for some time? So what befell in there? I have never seen either of you so put out. What made you so angry at him? And him at you?”

Faramir only shook his head irritably, brushing off the other’s hand. “I do not want to talk about this now. As to what happened, the short version is that I saw Éowyn, even managed to exchange a few words with her but was interrupted by the arrival of Al-Jahmîr.”

Khorazîr’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “He came? The Snake himself? What did you do? Did he see you?”

“He looked me right in the eyes, ere he took Éowyn away from me again. I had to endure his speech of goodwill, and then suffer to watch him take her on his horse. He even presented me with a token of his great leniency.” Reaching into his shirt, he withdrew the lock of hair.

Khorazîr and the others stared at it, then back at Faramir’s still furious expression. “Well,” said the Haradan after a while, “this certainly explains your present anger. But perhaps you should not let these things get to you so.” He shrugged, smiling faintly. “See this as the first part of her that was returned to you.”

Complete silence fell. Even as he had spoken the words, Khorazîr seemed to have realised they had been rather ill chosen. As if to forestall an outbreak from his friend, he half raised a hand in a soothing gesture.

Slamming the panniers to the ground at Khorazîr’s feet, swamping them in peaches, “I do not want to receive her back in bloody little pieces,” Faramir yelled at him furiously. “I want her back safe and sound, and now! And if you cannot understand this, save your breath and your useless advice and leave me in peace!” Without another glance at the perplexed company, he spun round and rushed up the path.

+

He did not heed his surroundings as he stormed through the underbrush, the lock still clasped tightly in his hand. Eventually, he came upon the path leading up to the quarry. For a brief moment he considered turning away again, not wishing to encounter any of the company, least of all Lôkhî or Khorazîr, but thought the better of it. He was hungry and thirsty, and hot and sweaty from his swift walk through rough terrain. His chest hurt, as did his shoulder, and the long, tangled hair had become a real nuisance in the heat, making his scalp itch.

Thus, he climbed the path, whistling the secret sign to the guard hidden up a large cork-oak who let him pass without further challenge – a wise decision on his account. But instead of making his way to the camp, Faramir turned towards the lake. Part of it lay in shadow now, as did the meadow where the horses were grazing, but on the opposite side the sunlight fell fully on the clear water and the rocky, tree-grown shores.

Faramir found a narrow path winding down to the water and then round the lake, half hidden by hardy evergreen bushes or, where the ground was swampy between the tumbled rocks, a thick growth of rushes, gladden and reeds. Dragonflies were zooming to and fro, a large frog submerged when it felt the vibrations of his boots, and two lizards ogled at him from a crevice in a half-cracked rock. Under different circumstances, Faramir would have been aware of the wildlife, perhaps even have stopped to take a look at the emerald-coloured lizards or the frog, but right now the tranquil beauty of the place, with the sunlight glistening on the smooth surface of the lake and startling white water-lilies in full bloom, contrasting deep blue waters under the shadow of the red-stoned cliffs, was entirely wasted on him.

Upon reaching a large flat stone half hidden by the twisting roots of another pine-tree, he brushed off the needles and pine-cones that had gathered there and began to discard his garments, dropping them carelessly onto the warm rock. The only things he handled with more care, almost reverence, were the lock and the parcel containing his sons’ drawings. These he placed between the roots and secured them with a stone so that they could not be carried away by the breeze. Scimitar and dagger, out of practice honed by decades of service with the rangers, he automatically put near the water’s edge so that he could reach them swiftly should the need arise.

Finally, free of the uncomfortable rags, he leaped headfirst into the water. It was colder than he had expected. When he had previously bathed in the lake, it had actually seemed warmer than the rain-cooled air. But now, with his skin heated from exercise and sun, the temperature came as a shock. A welcome shock, however. The impetus of his leap drove him deep under the glittering surface, and he dived down until pressure weighed on his ears and lungs. Gazing up, he could see rays of sunlight filter through the surprisingly clear water – the mud carried into the lake by the rains apparently having settled somewhat. Long trailers of flat-leafed weeds grew from the bottom, which was still further below him and vanishing in murky twilight, with even colder waters biting at his feet. A swarm of slender, silvery fish zoomed away when through a cloud of bubbles he dived to the surface again.

Drawing a deep breath, as deep as his still not fully functional lungs allowed, he dived down again, not as deep this time, rather going parallel to the surface where the water was warmest. Tendrils of brown colour began to stream from his hands and lower arms, and his face, most likely, although he did not see it. So Lôkhî had been right and the dye did come off again, he noted with relief. The thought of the guard stirred his anger again, but it was a different kind of anger now – not so much at the other, but at himself. And even that cooled as the water cooled his skin, and he finally began to consider all that had passed since the morning.

As he swam round upon round in the lake, from the shadowed end into the sunlight and back again, he thought about all that had happened, realising more and more what a fool he had made of himself, and worse, how he had unrightfully attacked those who had only tried to help him. And endangered those dear to him. He owed nothing but gratitude to Lôkhî who had contrived of a perfect way of sneaking into the guarded confines of Al-Jahmîr’s residence. And what had he done? Imperiled both of them with his unthinking, careless actions. And even worse, he had – accidentally, granted – injured Éowyn, and perhaps their child.

He ceased his strokes, floating on the water when his thoughts turned to the baby. Until this day, the idea of welcoming another child into their family had seemed rather remote to him. He had never been opposed to it, and had wondered how the boys would react to another sibling. Also, he had considered that the new child might be a daughter, and how wonderful that would be. But still, only now that he had actually felt the babe move under his hands he had fully grasped that a new life was growing there. “The child” was no abstract word anymore, but signified his child. A cold hand seemed to close around his heart when he realised the full seriousness of the situation. So far, rescuing Éowyn had been his chief concern. But now there were two to consider. And one would be totally helpless. A feeling of protectiveness and responsibility seemed to draw him down. Suddenly he fully understood why Éowyn was so afraid the baby might be hurt. It was theirs, and the possibility to not try the utmost to save it from the Snake’s grasp simply did not exist. A fierce desire to protect the child overcame him, shattered almost immediately by the realisation that as things stood there was nothing, nothing at all he could in fact do to shield it from harm.

He dived again, gazing unseeingly at the light-speckled weeds. His child was in danger, so was his beloved, and they would have to cope with the peril alone. Despair welled up in him. Five months gone already. Time was running out, and there was still so much planning to be done, so much more information to gather. They had managed to meet, yes, but contrived nothing towards her rescue. And with her injuries, and the fact Al-Jahmîr wanted to keep her safely imprisoned, chances of meeting her again soon were slight. Perhaps he himself had even diminished them with his rash, thoughtless act. What if Al-Jahmîr realised who he had presented with a lock from his prisoner? What if security was increased in the castle? How could he have been so selfish, so irresponsible, he who prided himself on caution and perceptiveness, to let his actions be so governed by his emotions? Lôkhî was completely right. He was an idiot.

Coming up for air when his lungs had already begun to sting, he drew a deep breath and submerged again. The quiet, watery world with its half-light and slightly swaying weeds seemed to be an ideal place to think. To finally think, which should have come much sooner. He had not been himself today. Certainly, he had seen it coming, an outbreak like this. The pressure and emotional stress of the past weeks had been unlikely not to affect him. Even someone as controlled as himself was bound to lose that control at some point. Only, the point had come too early, too unexpectedly, too strongly. The power of his anger and hatred towards Al-Jahmîr, justified, perhaps, had yet surprised and even frightened him in their intensity. He could not recall having ever lost control like this before. The emotions had simply overwhelmed him, and he had not even tried to keep them in check. He was changing, he had to admit to himself, and even though he had almost enjoyed the rage as it had gripped him, in retrospective he loathed his behaviour. What good would his wrath do to Éowyn and the baby? Naught. On the contrary, it only endangered those he loved, as well as himself and all who stood with him.

And yet, he asked himself, would he truly be able to keep himself in check next time he met the Snake? So far, things, as bad as they were, still seemed bearable for Éowyn. He recalled her expression when she had spoken of her treatment by her captor. He knew she had withheld things from him so as not to add to his worries, but it appeared she had not suffered over much at his hands. So far. There was no way to ensure her safety, and if Al-Jahmîr wanted to force his desires on her, what indeed could she do, if for example he threatened the baby’s life in order to make her compliant? What would she do? Faramir knew she would not willingly risk losing the child, knowing the pain and even more the heartache of miscarriage.

Again he had almost forgotten to breathe, breaking through the surface gasping for air. He had always been an excellent swimmer, one of the few disciplines he had managed to best his brother at, and even with his not yet fully recovered lungs he could hold his breath for several minutes. Still, he should not overdo things. Since his reasonable self had taken over again, he decided to remain at the surface, and moreover swim into the sunlit part of the lake, since the shadowed waters were beginning to chill him – almost as much as his thoughts.

Deciding that it would not do to surrender to despair, he began to reconsider all Éowyn had told him about people she knew who might be of help. At the moment, the stable-master seemed the most promising candidate. He would have to question Narejde and Azrahil about him. At the thought of the company, he felt a stab in his breast. Before he could ask them anything, he would have to apologise to Khorazîr and especially to Lôkhî. The little man had risked so much to ensure his safety, and how had he thanked him? With furious insults. True, Lôkhî had paid him back deftly, but Faramir knew it had only been a reaction to stress and fear.

And Khorazîr had all reason to feel offended as well. Faramir had had no right to attack him the way he had. He had been the unfortunate one to have to bear the brunt of his anger, although to be honest his rather tactless remark had invited it. But then, Faramir reasoned, Khorazîr as well as all the others were under enormous stress, too. Practically, they were All-Jahmîr’s neighbours, therefore what passed in this realm was going to affect them as well one way or the other. Also, he knew his friend and his wife were feeling guilty about what had befallen Éowyn because of their invitation.

He shook the long, tangly hair out of his eyes and snorted. Self-blame was all very well, but Khorazîr had been right. In truth, there was only one person to blame for all this: the Snake himself. Again Faramir felt a surge of anger, but it was different now. Colder and more controlled, and far more deadly. He would not allow his emotions to overwhelm him again. He would not play into the Snake’s hands by allowing his hatred to govern his actions. The next time he met Al-Jahmîr face to face, he would not be wearing a disguise. The Snake would recognise him, and realise what a great mistake he had made by not ensuring his demise. He would reclaim what was his, and would not suffer his enemy to take her away again. And he would use, not his fury nor his hatred but his wit to destroy the Snake once and for all.

+

Swimming another few rounds with slow, regular strokes to ease his tense shoulders and back, he at length returned to the stone where he had left his clothes. It was warm, almost hot from the sun, and he climbed up, shoving aside the garments to be able to stretch out and dry. Lifting an arm to shield his eyes from the sun, he noticed that the dye had almost gone from his hands and lower arms. Sitting up again, he bent over the water again to study his face. Some of the colour was still visible in the lines round mouth and eyes and on his forehead, ageing him by years. He scrubbed his features until his reflection fairly looked like himself again, except for the hair. He thought for a moment, before reaching for the dagger. Since it was unlikely this exact disguise would be needed again – indeed it would be too dangerous, now that even Al-Jahmîr had seen him in it –, he had few qualms about getting rid of the fake strands. Lôkhî had skilfully knotted it into his own hair quite close to his head, even sealing the knots with some kind of glue the water had not diluted, which meant Faramir had to cut most of it. He did not mind, however, since short hair would be more comfortable underneath the headdress he was forced to wear most of the time.

“Quite a pity.” The voice startled him so that he almost cut himself. “I thought you looked younger with your hair long. Less stern.”

Recognising the voice as Narejde’s, he relaxed, casting a glance over his shoulder yet deciding not to turn as he only wore his drawers – still rather wet. He chided himself for not paying better attention to his surroundings. She could have been an enemy sneaking up on him, after all.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, cutting the last few strands and running a hand through the tousled remains on his head. “Does your husband know you are watching other men bathe?” he added with a slight grin, rising and half-turning to see her expression, and reacting instantly to catch the fresh shirt she threw at him.

“Well, I must admit you look rather dashing in your underwear, although too slender and boyish for my taste,” she replied, stepping from behind the pine with a rather amused but also guarded expression, as if trying to determine what his mood might be like, and if he was still angry. “Actually, my husband sent me down here to check on you,” she went on in a more sober mood. “Or rather, he indicated he wanted someone to look after you, and prevent you from drowning yourself.”

“I had no intention of doing so,” said Faramir from inside the shirt. “I simply needed a bath, and time to think.”

She nodded. “The water has cooled your fury, then? Good. Khorazîr was quite distressed about your behaviour, even though he would never admit it. He was furious with you himself, until he heard Lôkhî’s account.”

“It thought Lôkhî refused to recount what happened,” Faramir mused, stooping to pick up his remaining clothes but deciding against putting them on to prevent them from getting wet. Also, he intended to change into some more comfortable and less ragged garments up in the camp.

Narejde shrugged, lowering herself onto one of the tree-roots. “Well, he did, at first. I have never seen him in such a mood before. But he is still our guard, and owes his lord obedience. So in the end Khorazîr rather harshly commanded him to talk, and he relented. After that, my husband grew a little more understanding of your mood, and told me to fetch you before you could do yourself some harm. Your wrath really unsettled him, you know that?”

“It unsettled me as well,” admitted Faramir.

She looked up from where she had been pulling the parcel and the lock from between the tree-roots. “Yes, Al-Jahmîr does have this effect on people.” She held up the strand of hair. “Is it true he gave it to you? Face to face? Without recognising you?” She gazed at him incredulously. “I can hardly believe this. He must truly believe you are dead. Or else his memory of people’s faces is poorer than I thought.”

“He saw me go down with two arrows in my chest,” said Faramir with a shrug, collecting his scimitar and boots. “But you are right. It was odd he did not recognise me. Perhaps he is going to begin to wonder now, if he does not simply dismiss Lôkhî and myself as simple peasant-folk unworthy of any further consideration. But there was someone who I think is going to definitely think about us. He gave us an intent, searching glance ere he rode off: Hazadai, the stable-master.”

Narejde frowned at the name. “Hazadai … ,” she muttered. Then her eyes lit. “So he has risen to stable-master now? During my time in the castle, he was a lowly groom. But even then he was very good with horses – and indeed with people. No wonder your wife should befriend him. I did not meet him often, but he always treated me decently, not like a slave or Zohrân’s whore like most others. What about him? Do you think he might help us?”

“Éowyn told me a few things about him. Apparently he fears what might happen to him if he dares oppose the Snake openly, but he seems rather tired and wary of his master’s policies. Perhaps he simply needs a little persuasion from the right people.”

“Azrahil and that guard are bound to know more about him, and if he is trustworthy,” she said thoughtfully, rising and holding out the parcel, into which she had put the lock. He held out the boots, and let it slip into one. “What else did she tell you?” she then inquired. “Lôkhî mentioned you spent some minutes together talking – the last word dripping with sarcasm.”

“He is still angry, then?” asked Faramir as they set out along the path, slowly, since he was barefoot on the rocky, needle-strewn ground and moreover laden with his clothes and weapons.

Narejde shrugged. “He has calmed down by now, I’m sure. But he was pretty furious. He did not want to admit it, proud stubborn Southron that he is, but I think the encounter with the Snake himself truly scared him. Lôkhî is a brave man, one of the bravest I know, but I do not think he was prepared for what awaited him today. Also, I believe he was more afraid of dooming his lord’s friend than getting imprisoned or killed himself.”

“I am terribly sorry I attacked him so,” said Faramir quietly. “Lôkhî saved my life, and so far I have thanked him only with scorn and insults. But as for being prepared, neither was I. Neither for meeting Éowyn, nor for what happened after.”

“He is certainly going to appreciate your apology. And never fear, he is not one to hold a grudge against you. Most likely, this evening or tomorrow at the latest he will chest with you again.”

“This is heartening. Contention amongst us is the least we can afford now. We would be playing into the Snake’s hands by fighting each other.”

“Exactly. Perhaps I should not tell you this – I’m not sure he would agree …”

“Then do not,” said Faramir, but Narejde shook her head slightly. “It’s about Lôkhî. You know, I think there is something else behind his anger at you. I believe he was a little envious of you spending time with your beloved. He does not talk about it as a rule, but Khorazîr told me that apparently Lôkhî’s sweetheart once left him for one of Al-Jahmîr’s friends.”

Faramir nodded sympathetically. “That must have been a sore blow. I will keep it in mind when next –” He interrupted himself upon spotting the small man approach them from the direction of the camp, but halted upon seeing them, about to turn round again.

Narejde patted his shoulder. “Well here is your chance,” she said, and hurried on, past Lôkhî who looked as if he intended to follow her. But he did not. Drawing himself up slightly, he gave Faramir a stern, steady glance. Even though he had exchanged his old-crone costume for his regular outfit, his face was still covered in dark colour. Faramir surmised he had been about to wash himself in the lake. For a moment they simply stood facing each other, until Lôkhî raised a hand and pointed at Faramir’s left shoulder. “You forgot a strand there,” he said.

Too burdened with his things to reach up, Faramir shook his head slightly, and felt Lôkhî was right. “Thanks,” he said, a little awkwardly. “Guess you are better in shaping my hair than I.”

“Indeed I am,” came the curt but self-confident reply.

Faramir was not daunted by his brusqueness. “You did an excellent job with the disguises – and with everything else,” he said earnestly. “Lôkhî, I am very sorry for what happened. I should never have –”

Lôkhî held up a hand and shook his head. “Don’t get started.”

“There are some things I need to say, however. You have my sincerest apologies for my misbehaviour this morning, and for my unqualified words to you afterwards. You were altogether right: I behaved like an idiot, and without you keeping your head, I would most likely have lost mine, and gotten you and Éowyn killed as well, most like. And what I said about you being a coward – that was utter nonsense. No coward would have stood his ground before the Snake the way you did.”

Lôkhî studied him long and sternly, his brows knotted, until Faramir was not certain if he did not still hold a grudge. But suddenly the other grinned, and stepping towards the Dúnadan, he gave him a clap to the shoulder. “Well, good to know that’s settled. I wouldn’t have apologised to you first, although my lord told me I must, because of saying these things about your wife. But now that you’ve said your thing first … well, here you are. I’m sorry. Of course she’s not better off where she’s now, not with that bloated slug keeping her company.”

Faramir let out a breath, not hiding his relief. “Well, I daresay you already had your revenge,” he remarked with a wry smile. Lôkhî looked puzzled for a moment, but then he grinned with genuine amusement. “Oh, you mean my trusty cane? Ah yes, that was fun. You’re going to feel the blows for some time yet. You’re shins look nicely bruised already,” he added with a mischievous glint in his eyes as he studied Faramir’s lower legs.

“Thank you kindly. I know you enjoyed beating me up.”

“Of course. Where else does one get the opportunity to hit a tark without him striking back? But the best entertainment this morning the Snake himself provided.” The small man’s eyes shone with glee – apparently he had recovered his good spirits. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but now … Imagine the shame: great Al-Jahmîr stands in front of his deadliest enemy chatting with him, and even giving him a lock cut from his wife’s head in front of the tark’s eyes. Oooh, if this comes out – when this comes out – Marek is going to be the laughing stock of all Harad. Looked you in the eyes and didn’t recognise you. Haha, nothing we could have done to him would have had a better effect at ridiculing him. I think I must actually thank you for casting that peach and bringing our dear friend to join the picnic. You provided Master Al-Jahmîr with a perfect opportunity to make a complete fool of himself in front of a number of witnesses, and he, grasping lout that he is, rose to the occasion.”

“Well, glad to have been of service,” Faramir replied. He had not looked at things quite like that, but had to admit Lôkhî was right. He almost wished he could go into town and help to spread the gossip, but that of course would mean having to reveal the fact he was still alive.

Lôkhî seemed to be thinking about the same lines. “It won’t stay secret forever,” he commented with a shrug.

“True, but the longer it does, the safer we are. Let him wonder a while longer.”

+

Taking his leave of Lôkhî who continued on towards the lake, Faramir climbed the path to the camp, his heart greatly lightened. There he was awaited eagerly by Turgon and Aralas and the rest of the company. Khorazîr was sitting outside his tent, rising so swiftly upon seeing the other approach that he almost upset the teacup standing next to his feet. Faramir did not hesitate to apologise to his friend, upon which the older man gave him a grave nod. “Do not do that again, Dúnadan, understood? Direct your anger at those who truly earn it.”

“I have already promised Lôkhî not to be as thoughtless next time. It will not happen again, I promise. And for now I think I owe you an account of my conversation with Éowyn, for some of the things we talked about are going to be important for our future undertakings. But first I should like to don some proper clothes, and have some food and drink.”

“We have plenty of peaches,” remarked Khorazîr with a mischievous grin.

+

After he had actually eaten two of them, as afters to a hearty meal, and delivered a long account of all that had passed in the orchard, the company sat in silence. Narejde was the first to regain her voice. “Five months gone already,” she muttered, running a hand through her hair with a worried expression. “That doesn’t leave us much time to prepare things. What do you know about this stable-master, Azrahil?”

The young man had listened to Faramir’s account with avid interest, especially when it had turned to what Éowyn had said about Inzilbêth, to then turn into a dark and rather despairing mood after Faramir had stated his wife’s estimate of how things stood with the young man’s beloved. Now he stirred, looking up irritatedly at being addressed. “I do not know him well,” he said with a shrug. “He always seemed a capable fellow to me, however. Rather quiet and minding his own business.”

“Many people are fed up with Al-Jahmîr’s way of ruling Ihimbra,” Sakalthôr fell in. “Most do not dare to speak up, out of fear of the Snake’s revenge. But I am not the only one to strongly object to his plans. As soon as people realise that not only he can make their lives very uncomfortable, but Gondor even more so when it strikes, they are going to cease hiding their true opinions.”

“So you think Hazadai might be someone we should concentrate on for the moment?” inquired Faramir. “Éowyn seemed to consider him trustworthy, and I must admit in retrospect I am rather touched by the way he hastened to look after her – not so much out of fear of Al-Jahmîr, but rather because he truly cared about the injured.”

“He is trustworthy,” replied Sakalthôr. “But I do not think he is going to bend to force and threats. He will need to be persuaded by good arguments.”

“Well, first we must lay hands on him,” said Khorazîr practically. “Do you happen to know where he lives?”

“Not exactly. My wife knows his family, however …,” the captain ended with a hopeful note, giving Faramir a swift glance.

“Haven’t we discussed this before?” Azrahil fell in rather sternly and with a trace of impatience. “You cannot go and see your wife. You are still our prisoner, and will remain so.”

“I have not attempted to escape, have I?” Sakalthôr returned rather hotly. Faramir exchanged a swift glance with Lôkhî who raised his eyebrows. “So much for not inviting any contention …,” he muttered under his breath.

“That’s laudable,” returned Azrahil. “But I know you tried to … how shall I put it … persuade your guards to accompany you on a little trip. Good for them they did not listen to you.”

“Wait, why did I not know about this?” demanded Khorazîr sharply, giving both his step-son and the Umbarian a fierce glance.

“Hamadâr just told me,” said Azrahil, scowling at Sakalthôr who returned his gaze with an equally dark expression. Apparently they had had discussions about the prisoner’s freedom before.

Before the situation could develop into a real argument, Faramir interrupted, “I very much sympathise with your desire to see your wife, and ensure she is well. I told Éowyn about her, and I think she is trying to meet her next time she visits the tailor. But actually, I believe it wise if you did go to her. Indeed, since according to what you told us she and your children are not save anymore at your house, it might be advisable to remove them thence.”

“My offer still stands,” Khorazîr reminded them. “They can stay in my realm, under the protection of my guards. The journey should be manageable, even for small children as they would have to travel slowly and carefully, anyway. The only disadvantage for us would be the fact that your wife would not be working for the tailor anymore, and thus be lost as a source of inside information.”

Sakalthôr, after shooting a last dark glance at Azrahil, bowed his head slightly. “I very much appreciate your offer, lord. Seeing them safe is my chief concern. I do not care what happens to me then. I will not attempt to flee, you have my word on that.”

“It seems we must seek a way to contact your wife, then,” said Faramir. “It would be best if some people went and had a look at your house, to find out if guards are still stationed nearby to watch it. If they are, we must find a way to get rid of them discreetly.”

“We have still got the uniforms …,” suggested Lôkhî with a slight grin.

+

They continued to talk and discuss plans and further steps throughout the afternoon. Mezlâr had left with Murâd and one of Narejde’s guards to take a look at Sakalthôr’s place. Azrahil invited Faramir to accompany him to go and fetch two sheep from the shepherd, one for Pharzi and one for the company. Knowing that in truth the young man wished to talk about his beloved out of his mother’s earshot, Faramir agreed. He was beginning to feel weary after the almost sleepless night, the eventful morning and the long, exhausting talk in the afternoon, and thought the walk would refresh him. Thus they set out, his features hidden again by a veil, with Azrahil walking next to him leading his lioness on the leash.

“Is it wise to take her along?” Faramir inquired as they left the quarry, not by the main path this time but another winding track climbing along the southern slope of the hill the quarry had eaten into, through dense, resin-scented woodland. “Will she not frighten the flock?”

Azrahil shook his head. “It has been agreed with the shepherd that he leaves those animals as are for us in a small pen next to a deserted coal-burner’s hut in the forest – there we found the charcoal for the brazier, too. Pharzi can eat hers there, so we do not have to clean away the remains afterwards.” Then, as if mustering some courage, he looked Faramir squarely in the eyes, and drawing a deep breath, he asked, almost imploringly, “Was this really all she said about Inzilbêth? Tell me again.”

Faramir obliged, despite knowing that his words hurt the other, but preferring to stick to the truth, and not withholding his opinion, which was not much different from Éowyn’s. Accordingly, Azrahil’s mood darkened, until he fell silent entirely. Soon the only sounds were those of their own footsteps, and Pharzî’s soft padding trot.

+

When they returned to the camp the sun was already casting long blueish shadows between the trees. Pharzi had taken quite long to eat her sheep, and was now lazily trotting alongside Faramir who held her leash, now and again raising her head to sniff at the dead animal Azrahil had slung over his shoulders but without showing any avid interest in it.

They reached the campsite to find it in uproar. All those not on watch were gathered round two men one of whom was talking rapidly with wild gestures. At first, before he could see their attire and features, Faramir thought Murâd and Mezlâr had returned, but then he recognised the men as members of Azrubâr’s crew. He exchanged an alarmed glance with Azrahil who gave him a confused but also slightly anxious one in return.

Spotting them as they stepped out of the trees, Narejde turned to them, her expression a mixture of anger and worry. Nodding towards the pirates, she greeted them with an ominous, “We have a real problem now, Dúnadan!”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat 12 Jan , 2008 11:47 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Al-Jahmîr had ridden halfway back to the castle when Éowyn woke. She felt his arms tighten around her as she stirred. “Be at ease, my dear, you're safe now,” he said into her ear.

She chose not to respond as they left the orchards and took the hoof-marked road toward the castle. How long had she been unconscious? Surely not too long if they were not even back indoors yet. What had happened to Faramir? The Snake did not seem jubilant or anxious. Did it mean he had taken the peasants to be nothing more than peasants? Had he let them go without any harassment? If he had discovered Faramir and captured him, she reasoned, he would not be carrying her up to the castle himself. No, he would still be gloating over his catch and perhaps have someone else see her back to her quarters.

She shifted, uncomfortable with the way she was slung across the saddle and, she noted with disgust, his lap. “Be careful,” he commanded her. “I'll see to it you don't fall again.”

“I'd rather take another fall than be pressed against you like this another moment longer,” she answered. His arms tensed again.

“I see that it didn't knock any sense into your head. Pity. I said stop moving! You'll only aggravate your injuries more.” Éowyn stopped her quest to find a more comfortable position. Her back was beginning to ache, a complementing pain to the throbbing in her ankle, and this twisted-sidesaddle business was doing nothing to relieve it. “With any luck you've only hurt yourself, not the child,” he muttered.

I would know long before you whether my baby was hurt, she thought. The child's movements had stilled for now, but she did not sense that anything was amiss. Most likely it had simply settled down and was trying to rest. Hopefully.

They passed through a set of gates and into a courtyard, where a servant held the horse's bridle as al-Jahmîr dismounted. For a moment, Éowyn entertained the thought of hopping down before he could turn to lift her from the saddle, but her good sense told her it was a mistake. She questioned her judgment, though, as he lifted her into his arms again and carried her inside.

“I've already had the healers sent to your rooms,” he said as they wound through the maze of corridors. “I know they will want to see you immediately.”

“I trust they will be the only ones seeing me,” she replied darkly.

“You mean you don't want me attending a thorough examination of your person?” he said with a smirk. “Éowyn, I thought we had reached a point where more liberties could be taken. You know how I hate being disappointed.”

She snorted. “Get used to it.”

When they reached her apartments, the healers were indeed already waiting, and they did not look pleased. As soon as al-Jahmîr set her down on her bed, they shooed him out, and she was mildly surprised that he did not put up a fight. But then again, he was brushing the mud from his tunic, she thought. How completely rude of you to get his clothes dirty. How will he ever survive with a dirty tunic?

The healers returned, and their first order of business was to get her into a clean, dry linen underdress. They clicked their tongues at how chilled her back felt and then went on to examine the rest of her. Her ankle was indeed sprained, and after her bath it would have to be wrapped and she must keep all weight off it for several days. Her wrist and arm would be sore for quite some time, but the injuries there were not debilitating. They questioned her thoroughly about the baby's movements, if she sensed anything unusual, or if she had had any sharp pains in her hips.

“You've felt movement, and there's no blood on your undergarments,” one of the healers said, nodding. “Both good signs.” Éowyn let out a long breath. She had been fairly sure that would be the conclusion, but there was a sense of relief that came from hearing it from a healer as well. “But,” the healer continued, “you are absolutely not allowed to ride again until well after the child is born. You were lucky this time, but you can't expect such good fortune every time.”

The other healer added, “I think it would be wise if you limited all your activity until the birth. You won't be able to do much with your ankle as it is, and bedrest would help you gain the rest and conserve the strength you'll need for later.” The pair exchanged glances and nodded in agreement.

Éowyn sighed. She had hoped it would not come to this. She knew that the rest would do her some good, but she hated being confined to her bed. It would mean no more trips to the stable, her one refuge among the constant reminders of her prison. The gardens were also off-limits now, and she had just begun to find some enjoyment in them.

“Now, let's get you cleaned up.”

+++

The bath water smelled of roses from the oil Miliani had poured in. The steam rolled over the edge of the tub, and Éowyn watched as it disappeared into the air. She nodded when the girl asked if the water was hot enough, then closed her eyes, resting her head on the folded towel behind it. Now that she had been still and relaxing for several minutes, she could feel the aches and bruises forming. Not that she regretted how they had come about. Those few precious moments with Faramir were well worth the price of a few bumps and bruises. Worry gnawed at her stomach, though, as she wondered what had happened to him after she had blacked out. Perhaps once she was out of the bath and in bed she would send Miliani down to the stables with a message for Hazadai, asking him about what had happened. Yes, and she would also have the girl ask about how her mare had fared and relay the healers' announcement that she would be bedridden for a while. That would be enough to settle anyone's wonderings at why a house serving girl was so far from her post and not draw attention to her interest in the “peasants.”

She turned her head and looked out the window. The sunlight glistened on the water in the bay and reflected off the canvas sails of ships entering the harbor. At this distance, the ships looked miniature, much like the simple toys her boys sometimes played with when they took their baths. They would be wide-eyed with wonder at the view she beheld now. Her thoughts drifted back to the drawings Faramir had shown her in the orchard. His thoughtfulness was both a comfort and a heartache. The bright colors and squiggled lines had made her smile, but at the same time, she wondered if her children so content that they could play and draw without needing her. The boys could be quite grouchy and stubborn if they were upset or asked to do something they did not want to do, and from all appearances they had put their whole hearts into making those pictures. But hadn't Faramir said they missed her and sent their love? She chided herself for letting these doubts creep in. Surely her babies missed her as much as she missed them. Of course, they –

“You are far away.”

Éowyn started at the sound of al-Jahmîr's voice. She twisted to see him leaning against the entrance to the alcove where her bath stood. He had changed out of his other tunic into a dark gray one with black embroidery.

“How long have you been standing there?” she snapped.

He straightened and casually walked toward her. “Several minutes,” he replied. “I'd started wondering if you'd fallen asleep.” His eyebrow arched as he glanced at the tub water, then changed his course to reach for a small three-legged stool and bring it over. Éowyn glanced down at the water and shuddered, quickly crossing her arms and drawing her knees up as far as her growing middle would allow. The water was far less opaque than it had been the first time he had intruded, and she glared at him as he settled and rested an elbow on the tub's edge.

“The healers say that you are fairly well, all things considered.”

“Yes.” She turned her face (he was not looking at it anyway) to gaze out the window again. If she could not see him, she could almost convince herself that his eyes were not roving over her skin above water and making lecherous guesses at what remained submerged.

“They also say you must rest.” When Éowyn remained silent, he reached for a section of her hair, began untangling it, and continued. “I doubt that pleases you.”

“It is what is best for me and the baby.” She flinched as his fingers brushed against her neck when he tucked the strands behind her ear.

“Aye.” Éowyn did not have a chance to react before she felt his hand press firmly against her middle. She writhed for a moment under his touch but realized the futility since the tub kept her in place. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to remember how wonderful it had been when Faramir had finally been able to feel his child move. “Breathe, Éowyn,” came the stern command. She gasped, not realizing that she had been holding her breath. “Are you in pain?”

“You!” she cried. “I have had enough distress today without needing you barging into my bath and touching me while I am... I... Can you not see how much you upset me?”

He leaned back and took his hand from her, drying it on one of the towels Miliani had placed nearby. “I think it is your stubbornness that causes you most of your grief when I am around.” He put the towel across his knee. “I want to talk to you about what happened this morning.”

“Do we have to do this now?”

“Yes, while it is still fresh in your mind.”

He began asking questions, and she answered as best she could. He wanted to know why she was riding in that part of the orchard, whether she had seen any of the people participating in the Widow's Harvest from a distance, what had caused the horses to panic and her to fall. He asked her about what she remembered of the peasants who had helped her, what they looked like, what they had said to her. When she thought surely he had all the information he wanted, he began asking questions again, simply changing the wording.

“Tell me again what they said to you.”

Éowyn shook her head. “I've already told you that. They just wanted to know if I was hurt and whether anyone would be looking for me.” She kept her gaze focused out the window. Already she had made up vague answers to some of his detailed questions about the peasants' behavior or looks, and she did not want to think about the possibility that her story was not matching what had happened once she passed out.

“Would you say the old woman was the quiet type or more talkative than most?” A gull swooped past the window. “Éowyn?”

“I don't know,” she answered curtly. “Quieter than some, I suppose.”

“And the boy, did you notice anything unusual about him?”

She laughed bitterly. “What, and kindle your jealousy?”

“He was tall,” al-Jahmîr said softly, as though to himself. “Far taller than most people in these parts. Tis a shame that he's slow in the head. He would have made an excellent soldier for his size.” He paused. “His eyes were also strange, grey. Also something not seen often here.”

Éowyn had strained to keep her breathing steady, continuing to feign lack of interest in his words, but her heart pounded and she had taken to counting the small tiles around the windowsill to avoid stealing a glance at the Snake. “Perhaps there's still a drop or two of old Númenorian blood in his family,” she said, her voice weak.

“Perhaps. There are still families here who claim that, though it's such a waste that the lot fell on him. You said the granny was quiet?”

“Yes, and my answer will remain the same the next time you ask me that question, and the time after that, and the time after that. So let's save ourselves several minutes of running around the circle and end this now.”

Footsteps approached, and the more plump healer strode into the alcove. “Well, how was your ba-- Oh,” she stopped when she saw al-Jahmîr sitting by the tub and dropped a quick curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord, I did not realize you were here.”

“I believe my lady is finished with her bath and ready to get out,” he answered, rising and taking the towel from his knee. He unfolded it and held it spread. Cold hate rose in Éowyn as she realized he had no intention of leaving now. She doubted even a battle of wills would change his mind this time. Taking several breaths to steady herself, she rose from the water and, with the healer's help, carefully stepped out of the tub and into the waiting towel. She flinched as he wrapped it around her, leaning to murmur, “Very beautiful indeed,” into her ear, and clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. She wanted to claw the smug look from his face. Did he think he had won something just because he had seen her in her skin? He had seen many women, she was sure, and she doubted that she was built much differently than they were.

The healer lifted a towel to her hair and wrapped it around her head, dabbing at some drops on her neck with one end. Feeling al-Jahmîr's fingers trail down her left arm, Éowyn stepped forward and cried out, forgetting about her injured ankle.

The healer tsked. “You need to let someone help you. Trying to walk on your own won't do any good.”

“Such scars,” she heard al-Jahmîr say, feeling his fingers on her arm once more. She pulled it away, deciding she had conceded too much already today.

“From service in war,” she said firmly, turning to look at him. “Which is more than you can say.” It had been years before she was comfortable with letting Faramir touch those scars, lasting marks from where her shield-arm had been maimed. The joints and bones still ached from time to time.

“I gave my own service,” he said stiffly.

“But mine made the difference,” she answered, looking him in the eyes. A fierce light burned there now. “Whatever service you gave has long been forgotten. Mine will be remembered even as the Ages pass. Would you help me?” she said to the healer (who had taken a step back to avoid getting caught in the exchange.) “I believe Marek is no longer of use here.” She surprised herself at using his given name. Usually she thought of him only as “al-Jahmîr” or “the Snake.” Leaning on the woman, she hobbled to her bed and sat on the edge. Miliani helped her into a simple linen gown, winking as she blocked her master's view of the process. He had followed then into the next room, but had remained uncharacteristically silent. As she lifted her feet into bed and pulled a blanket over them, she raised an eyebrow at him, as though daring him to speak. He snorted, turned, and strode out of the room.

The healer watched him leave. “I must say you are brave, lady,” she said, handing Éowyn a cup of tea.

“He dares not do anything to me,” Éowyn replied, pushing back part of the towel that had fallen with her other hand. “I am all that keeps this castle from being razed.” And that day will come sooner than anyone thinks, she told herself. Her brother would see to that single-handedly, if he had to. He had outgrown much of his youthful recklessness, but when he was deeply stirred, echoes of the wild third marshal reappeared.

“Your lunch is being brought to you,” Miliani said, placing a large napkin across Éowyn's lap. “I was told the Master was going to join you, but I guess he changed his mind,” she said, barely suppressing a giggle.

Éowyn nodded. Her stomach had rumbled at the thought of food. She had been hungry for quite some time now, and soon after the first servant appeared with a tray, she ate as though she were famished. The healer praised her appetite, saying that she needed to eat well to keep the baby healthy. The woman left after taking a few minutes to wrap the injured ankle and wrist in bandages, and Éowyn was able to finish her meal in peace. Miliani wanted to know what had happened, and so she gave the girl a brief account. Then she sent her down to the stables with messages and questions for Hazadai. She told the girl to make sure she found out exactly what had happened to the peasants who had helped her.

After the girl had gone and other servants had cleared her lunch platters and trays, she lay back against her pillows and thought about the morning again. She could still feel the heat and pressure of Faramir's lips on hers as he gave her his goodbye kiss. Maybe if he had not lingered so, the guards would not have espied him and al-Jahmîr not questioned him. But really, would she have rather had him leave abruptly with no chance for a farewell?

Suddenly she found tears in her eyes, and she dashed them away. She had never been one to quickly give into tears, but with this pregnancy, as well as the past ones, weeping happened even when all was well. She missed her husband, and knowing that he was close by was in a way comforting, but it also added to her loneliness since she knew he could not come to her yet.

A yawn threatened to crack her jaw. Now that she was lying down and relaxing, she discovered she was more tired than she had thought. The hot water had helped ease sore muscles, and the tea and good meal had satisfied her hunger for now. Maybe if she just closed her eyes, to rest them, of course, and kept listening for Miliani she would not fall asleep before the girl brought back a reply.

Her resolution failed.

+++

The midsummer sun shown brightly on the meadow of wildflowers tucked away in a valley in the White Mountains, though a few puffy white clouds tried to dim its brightness. She and her new husband – husband! How strange it felt to call him that! -- were walking hand-in-hand among the bluebells and snowdrops. Faramir had made sure to tether his fiery chestnut colt that he had brought back from the South far from her placid dapple-grey mare lest the horse try to cause any mischief. It might anyway, from what she had seen of it so far, snorting and repeatedly trying to take the bit in its teeth on the journey up here.

But why should her thoughts rest so much with the horses when she had a husband she needed to know better? They had been parted for months, their original wedding day postponed from the spring until now, and this was really the first day that they had any time to truly talk with one another. Much of the previous day had been spent in ceremony or feasting with guests, and they had had very little time to themselves until late in the evening. Once they were alone, though, the words had started and had not stopped. They had shared a bed, but they had talked until they had fallen asleep. (Anyone wishing to observe the archaic custom of examining the sheets for evidence of a consummated marriage would surely think something scandalous was afoot.) This morning they had left Edoras at dawn and started for the mountains.

She sighed and gripped his hand tightly, resting her head against his shoulder.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I am happy,” she replied simply. “It has been a long time since...” She felt him drop a kiss on her hair. She found that she now craved his kisses, touches, and attention more than she had ever thought she would. He freed her hand to slip his arm around her waist and draw her close to him.

“I am glad for that,” he said. “You have had enough sadness for one lifetime. I am sorry that I added to it. I know how you were looking forward to this in Súlimë.”

“I suspected we would have to change the date,” she said, “and I was not really disappointed when we moved it back to Midsummer, but the day did come and pass a bit darker than the others this spring.”

His arm tightened around her. “But if we had been wed in early spring, I would not be able to do this,” he said, stooping to pluck a bluebell and slip it behind her ear. “And I have yet to see a flower as fair and lovely as you,” he added. Her soft laugh was cut short as he kissed her again, properly this time.

They continued their stroll through the valley, then resumed their ride up the slopes. As the day wore on, the puffy white clouds that teased the sun turned gray and stormy. The wind whistled around the rocks, large raindrops splattered on their faces, and thundered rumbled ominously. They were soaking wet before they stumbled across an abandoned stone cottage tucked away in a grove of trees. The roof leaked in places, but it was sturdy. There they spent their second night as husband and wife, and there she discovered what true closeness meant. This night they spent far less time talking.


+++

Éowyn woke slowly, not wanting this dream of happier times to end. She knew the place beside her in bed would be empty, but she looked anyway when she opened her eyes. Faramir had seemed so close to her just now, as though she could reach out and stroke back his hair as he slept. But that was the thing about dreams, was it not? They seemed real until the waking.

Stretching gently, she was surprised to find that she felt almost as hungry now as before she had eaten lunch. That cold soup had been delicious, and she felt it would be the only thing that would satisfy her now. Miliani was nowhere to be seen, though, and thus she contented herself meagerly on a cup of water from the pitcher on the nightstand. When the girl finally appeared, she looked as though she had run. Éowyn took the note the girl handed her, then told her to go fetch another bowl of the soup.

My lady,

It's good to know that you've taken no serious hurts from your fall!
The mare was less fortunate, I'm afraid. Her knees are cut up and
she seems to favor the near foreleg. I'll be keeping close watch on
her for infection and lameness, but I think that with rest and care
she should heal well.

How fortunate there were honest people about to take care of you so
soon after the fall. Most, I think, would not want to get involved
in case the blame somehow landed on them. The Master questioned them
briefly then sent them on their way without further incident. I doubt
you need to continue worrying about them. Most likely Master has
forgotten all about them by now. Still, it is a bit strange that
they seemed to be there almost immediately.

In your service,
Hazadai


Furrowing her eyebrows, she read the brief note again. If he found it strange that people had helped her so quickly, would the Snake think so as well? Al-Jahmîr had displayed a certain paranoia when it came to plots concerning his person, and would he not find it rather convenient that two rescuers had been only strides away from where she fell? Suddenly she wanted to talk to the stablemaster face to face, to judge by his face and voice whether he was leaving more guesses unsaid. From the bath-time incident, clearly the Snake had not yet forgotten about the “peasants,” and what if his curiosity only grew stronger the more he thought about it?

Miliani returned with the soup, and Éowyn ate it slowly, her thoughts still whirling. Finally she told herself that as of yet the Snake seemed reasonably satisfied with the situation, so why should she wear herself out by fretting before there was reason? The girl noticed her distracted manner and, perhaps thinking that her lady was trying to figure out what to do with her time now that she was confined to bed, offered to bring in the sewing basket and cloth. Éowyn nodded slowly. The rest of the afternoon she worked on embroidery for blankets, the need for attention to detail keeping her mind off the Snake's doings.

Later, a message arrived from Inzilbêth, inviting her to join them for supper. Inzilbêth assured her that she had already spoken with the healers about it and had come to an agreement. When the time came for Éowyn to leave, she was not too surprised that the healer's apprentice had also come to escort her, but her eyes did widen at the sight of what looked like an armchair on wheels. The most difficult part was hobbling up the few steps that split her bedchamber. As she leaned on the healer, she heard the woman mutter about someone's poor planning when it came to the room. The chair was comfortable enough, but Éowyn gripped the arms tightly, not sure how comfortable she felt with being wheeled along like a child in a pram.

Inzilbêth met her at the entryway to her quarters, stooping to embrace her gently. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired, sore,” Éowyn replied, indicating her bandaged wrist. “A bit unwell, but that could just be from the day's stress.”

“I'm glad nothing worse happened to you,” Inzilbêth said, clasping her shoulder. “But come, the table is ready. Father and Adûn are out on the terrace with Dala, but they should be in soon.”

Indeed, they had hardly gotten to the table and begun a conversation when the menfolk appeared in the doorway. Éowyn was surprised to see the baby resting not on her father's shoulder but rather on her grandfather's, a pale yellow blanket tucked around her as she slept. The look of genuine pride, and perhaps indeed love, on his face was disconcerting. It was difficult seeing the Snake now a doting grandfather, knowing the atrocities he had planned and ordered. Éowyn found herself staring as he sat down, careful not to disturb the child. Dala stayed nestled on his shoulder for most of the meal, until finally he allowed a servant to take her to her cradle.

“She's a darling thing, isn't she?” he said, slicing into a piece of roast duck.

Adûnakhôr and Inzilbêth exchanged content glances. “She's my little sunshine,” Inzilbêth agreed. “She's still too small for those gowns you had made for her, but my midwife visited her today and said in a few weeks she'll be growing enough to fit some of them.”

“The midwife?” al-Jahmîr said sharply. “Is she sick?”

“Oh, no,” Inzilbêth hurriedly assured him. “She just wanted to see how I was recovering and whether Dala was getting along good.”

“That is wise,” al-Jahmîr conceded. “And it won't be too long before she is back to assist with another birth.” He glanced at Éowyn.

“We will see about that,” she said under her breath. She saw his eyes flash briefly, but otherwise he did not respond to her jibe.

After supper, they went out to enjoy the cooling evening air in the gardens. Adûnakhôr graciously assisted Éowyn with her chair. “She was worried about you,” he said quietly as his father and wife strolled on ahead, arm in arm. “Afraid that you were going to lose the baby.”

“I appreciate her concern,” she answered, “though I have no intention of losing this child.”

“We never intend to lose the ones we love,” Adûnakhôr said after a pause, almost as though to himself. “They are simply taken from us.”

Éowyn tried to look over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of his face, though the wistfulness in his voice was unmistakable. Who was he referring to, she wondered. Up ahead the pair had stopped at a small fountain circled by carved benches. Inzilbêth chose a seat at the end of one bench so she could easily speak with Éowyn.

“You must've been so frightened this morning,” Inzilbêth said, reaching out to clasp Éowyn's hand.

Éowyn shook her head slightly. “The fall happened so quickly that I did not have time to even realize what was going on,” she said.

“No, I mean afterward,” Inzilbêth added, “waking up and finding total strangers watching you.”

It would not be the first time that's happened, Éowyn thought. “It was a bit disconcerting at first, but they were good people, so there was nothing to fear from them.”

“A bit strange they helped at all,” Adûnakhôr said, walking over to the benches. He and his father had been examining a piece of broken masonry on the fountain. “Usually the townsfolk who come in for the harvest are too cowed by the guards to wander off. Perhaps they though there'd be a reward in it for them.”

“They didn't ask for any, though,” al-Jahmîr said. “The boy didn't say a word at all, though the granny --” he stopped and looked thoughtful for a moment before continuing. “I did give the boy a lock of your hair, since he seemed mesmerized by you.” His voice trailed off again.

Well that explains the shorter strand, Éowyn thought. Miliani had discovered the trimmed piece and had squawked at the rough cut. “Did he?” Éowyn said absently. “I never noticed.” She did not like how quickly the subject had turned to her rescuers and was glad when Adûnakhôr asked about a guarding procedure.

“How is Dala doing at night?” she asked.

Inzilbêth smiled brightly at the mention of her daughter. “Better. She's still waking up too often for my liking, but usually she'll eat and fall right to sleep again.” She continued talking about her little one, but despite her genuine interest, Éowyn could not help but get distracted by threads in the men's conversation.

“The fish market?” Adûnakhôr questioned. “I don't remember anyone living within streets of there. True, it's been some time since I was there, but last I remember a rug merchant and some other trader had bought up most of the buildings around there to use as warehouses or just to spite the other.”

“She really has her father's eyes,” Inzilbêth went on. “Especially when she's content.”

“My eldest son has his father's eyes,” Éowyn said. “Grey and gentle, and bright when he is happy, but oh, when he gets angry, they can be hard and stern.”

“What did you say?”

Éowyn froze. The Snake's voice had held a strange quality as he asked the question, as though he was slowly coming to a realization or beginning to see pieces of a puzzle fall into place.

“I was just talking about my children,” she said weakly, hoping that her earlier comment about not feeling well would be an excuse for how pale her face felt now.

“You said your eldest son has grey eyes, like his father,” Inzilbêth said, not noticing the sudden change in mood. “Are they dark grey like storm clouds, or lighter, like ashes in a fireplace?”

Inzilbêth's words faded from Éowyn's hearing as she watched al-Jahmîr stare at her without seeing her. His mind was somewhere far off. She dreaded what he was pondering with such intensity. Finally, his eyes widened slightly and his jaw clenched as he reached his conclusions. Éowyn closed her eyes and tried to breathe, feeling her lungs take in air but getting no relief from the cool evening. He knows, she cried silently. Forgive me, my dear, sweet Faramir, forgive me.

“They'd be lighter, wouldn't they?” al-Jahmîr said through gritted teeth. “And hard and stern when he's forced to hold back his fury.”

“Éowyn? Are you feeling all right?” Inzilbêth touched her arm. “Do you need to go back inside?”

“I think she does,” al-Jahmîr snapped as he jumped to his feet. “Adûnakhôr, see to it that she makes it to her quarters and alert the guards.” With that he strode back toward the castle, leaving his son and daughter-in-law to exchange bewildered glances.

Éowyn slumped forward in her chair and hid her face in her hands. I am so sorry, Faramir, so, so sorry. Her shoulders shook as she struggled to take a steady breath.

Inzilbêth's voice sounded far away as she again asked if Éowyn was all right.

“I don't think now is the time, Inzi,” Adûnakhôr said quietly.

“But Adûn, can't you see how upset she is? What just happened?”

“Now is not the time,” al-Jahmîr's son repeated. “I think you should say goodnight.”

Éowyn lifted her gaze in time to see the hurt look on Inzilbêth's face before the other gathered her in a tight embrace. “We'll meet tomorrow, all right? And we'll... we'll... we'll do something,” she added, her voice cracking. Éowyn nodded, her own voice unable to form words. She felt terribly cold of a sudden and queasy. She was glad she was sitting, for she did not feel as though her legs would have supported her.

They pulled apart as the chair rolled back, and Adûnakhôr took her on the long, silent path back indoors. A flurry of activity had begun inside in the short time that al-Jahmîr had been gone. Already a pair of additional guards stood at the entrance of the gardens, and more were roaming the halls, going to whatever assignment they had drawn. Going past a window, Éowyn saw a line of figures running in the direction of the stables. More guards waited for her outside her quarters. Adûnakhôr took her inside and turned to leave. He paused, conflicting emotions visible on his face, but then he continued out the door without a word.

“What happened?” Miliani asked, crouching beside the chair.

“I do not want to talk about it,” Éowyn whispered, wiping at her eyes. “Just... just help me to bed, and bring a basin.”

+++

Éowyn lay awake, listening to the new sounds that popped up as evening turned into night. Somewhere on the grounds a horn had sounded, and regularly a bell clanged one stroke, two short strokes in succession, and then another regular stroke. She had set Miliani to watching from the windows, and the girl had reported that one of the Narîka n’Azri had taken to the bay and was headed out to sea. After that she had told the girl to stop watching. What would happen would happen, and Éowyn knew there was nothing at all she could do to hamper it or warn her beloved.

How safe was their hiding place, she wondered. Were they close by or farther off? Would they have a way of knowing if the Snake sent out search parties, which he likely would now that he knew something was amiss? The worry made her stomach roil, and she had already reached for the basin once to find relief. She tossed and turned, trying to find some comfort in a mattress that suddenly seemed to be filled with lumps.

The night grew quieter, and she found herself dozing off until a wild horn-cry startled her awake again. She lay still, trying to fall asleep again, when she heard the doors in her sitting room burst open and hurried footsteps approach. Tensing at the thought of the inevitable confrontation, she was not surprised to see al-Jahmîr burst into her room, closely followed by a guard with a lantern. He ignored the steps and leaped from the upper level of her bedchamber onto the lower and in a few long strides had reached the bed and grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her to a sitting position.

“Where is he!” he demanded.

Éowyn shook her head, eyes stinging at the brightness of the lantern. “I know not,” she whispered.

Al-Jahmîr shook her harshly. “Where is he!”

“I know not!” she cried. She was rewarded with a slap across her face.

“Tell me!” he roared.

Éowyn whimpered and cringed as he raised his hand for another blow. “I know not,” she whispered.

He spit at her and turned to the guard. “Take her to the upper cells and tell Aurens she's his special charge.”

He stood and left the room, cursing loudly as he stumbled over something in the darkness. The guard waited to be sure his master was truly gone, then set the lantern on the floor and gazed at Éowyn, smirking. “Well love, since it's just you and me now, let's have a little fun before you go,” he said, shaking off his cape and beginning to undo his belt. Éowyn glared at him and clenched her good hand into a fist. I may have learned to fear the Snake, but I am not afraid of you, little worm. “A feisty one, eh?” the guard said. “Good, I like a woman with a little fire in her.” As he stepped toward her, there was the sound of boots scraping on stone in the shadows behind the lantern and from the darkness came the green-tasseled hilt of a scimitar, cracking the git on the side of his skull, sending him sprawling across the bed and tumbling over the other side. He scrambled to his knees and tried to reach for his own scimitar while attempting to stop the blood that streamed down his face.

“Boy, you better pray I'm so busy that I've forgotten all about this the next time I see you, because if you were trying to do what I think you were trying to do, your existence is going to drag out in endless misery.”

“Yes, sir, Commander Aurens,” the guard stammered, trying to regain his feet and swaying badly. “I'm sorry, Comm–”

“No, you're not. Get the hell out of my sight, now!”

The guard mumbled and staggered toward the stairs and felt his way up them and out the door.

The newcomer stepped into the light and took to his knee. His dark, emerald green cape fell across broad shoulders, and the silver making up various clasps and buckles flickered in the lantern light, as did the polish on his gleaming black boots. He ducked his head.

“Forgive me, my lady,” he said, his voice no longer rough with rage but quiet and remorseful. “Such an intention toward a lady is despicable, and I am ashamed to say that he was one of my recruits.”

“It is I who should be thanking you for your timely interference,” Éowyn said, drawing the blankets up around her again. She felt oddly calm in this man's presence, but she was still distressed from al-Jahmîr's visit and now a man's attempt to force himself upon her, and she did not want anyone seeing her in the thin nightdress she was wearing.

“I regret there was a need for it,” he said, lifting his head to look her in the eyes. He held the look for a moment, then diverted his gaze. “I am Aurens, Commander of the Guard of Ihimbra al-Soor.”

Éowyn drew a sharp breath. “You are the one who brought a message the other day.” His green eyes had caught the lantern light and stirred her memory.

He chuckled. “I'm honored by your remembrance, my lady. But I'm afraid that now is not the time for conversation. I can spare you only the time to perhaps change into a more appropriate dress, but then I must get you to the cells. I'll send for your maid.” He was on his feet and up the steps before Éowyn could get a word in edgewise. She looked around the shadowy room that suddenly felt warm and inviting now that the prospect of spending a night in a cell was in view.

Saredeen hurried into the room, lighting candles as she went. Aurens followed and stood just inside the doorway, again keeping his gaze diverted, but Éowyn sensed he still knew exactly what was happening in every corner of the room. The maid rushed to the closet and came back with a red dress with a gold sash belt. It was hardly an appropriate dress for prison, but then it was unlikely that any of the dresses al-Jahmîr had ordered made for her would fit that description. The girl's hands shook as she did up the laces in the back, and Éowyn wondered what reason she had to be that afraid. She herself had gone from fear to anger and now to calm in a matter of minutes. Saredeen had barely finished tying her hair back with a ribbon before Aurens was at her side and placing his hand firmly on her arm.

“That's all the time I can give you, my lady,” he said. “I know they've rounded up a certain chair for you, but there are many steps between here and where we are going, and it'll be more efficient if I simply carry you, if I may.”

Éowyn consented, I doubt I have much of a choice, and found herself being lifted carefully and asked if she was comfortable. She nodded. Aurens told Saredeen to bring the lantern, and the girl bit her lip but did as she was told. The commander navigated the dimly lit corridors swiftly yet assuredly, pausing at narrow doorways to ease his way through and slowing to descend steps. They passed into open air for a few moments, and Éowyn shivered in the cool night breeze

The castle was astir again with far more activity than was usual for near midnight. Torches burned at intervals on the walls, bathing the red stone in a warm glow. This part of the grounds was unfamiliar to Éowyn. It did not have the elegance found elsewhere in the castle, but it was not completely crude either. They passed through an arched gate, the guards snapping to attention and saluting, and descended a short series of wide steps. From time to time a soldier would appear and ask his commander a question or give a short report, and Aurens addressed each one briefly but seemingly well, for the soldiers saluted and quickly went about their way without hesitation.

“What is happening?” Éowyn asked quietly, not really expecting an answer.

“Securing the castle grounds and the immediate surrounding area,” Aurens answered. “Nothing appears unusual so far, which doesn't surprise me.”

“No?”

“We would've noticed long ago had someone been prowling around the castle or trying to create a way in. We'll have to search farther for those plotting to rescue you.”

“Please do not try too hard,” Éowyn whispered, and only when Aurens chuckled did she realize she had spoken aloud.

“I'm afraid that's an order I can't follow,” he said. Rounding a corner, he entered a single-level stone building. In the dim light, Éowyn could descry iron bars dividing up the walls. Behind them, the light suddenly grew brighter as a soldier followed with a torch.

“Thank you,” Aurens said over his shoulder, taking Éowyn to the center of three cells along the back wall. He set her down on the planks bolted into the stone wall to form a kind of bunk and straightened. “I'll send someone to fetch some blankets for you. You're no longer a seasoned soldier, and a lady in your condition especially needs a few comforts not normally handed out.” He stepped out of the cell and slid the door shut. It clanged slightly as the lock snapped shut. In a few strides he was out of the building, and Éowyn was finally alone save for a guard out of sight outside the entrance.

She lay down on the rough boards and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering from both the cold (she could feel drafts curl around her, and the stones felt damp as well) and from the shock that the Snake had actually gone through with his threat of throwing her in the dungeons. She knew these were not the worst ones, like where Khorazîr had been placed during his imprisonment many years ago, but they were a far cry from her quarters in the main castle. The dress she wore was not entirely suited for a drafty room with no source of heat and nothing else to keep her warm, either.

She sniffled. This was not how things were supposed to happen at all. She was supposed to be in her apartments where servants could slip her secret notes or in a place where she could go down to the stables whenever she wished with minimal supervision, not here behind a lock in the middle of what looked like the castle garrison. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Tis not likely the Snake will keep you here for long. After all, did he not house Faramir in luxury despite being a prisoner? She shifted on the uncomfortable boards. Even then, Faramir had been kept in a hideout while she was in the Snake's own home. And like Faramir, she was too precious a prisoner to treat too roughly. But not too precious to kill when one becomes an inconvenience, she thought wryly.

Footsteps hurried past outside, coming and going, and occasionally a voice would call out to attend to one gate or another or man some wall. Éowyn tried to decipher the various names, but the voices were muffled by the walls or downed out by footsteps. The minutes passed by slowly as she tried to settle and salvage some sleep. The baby kicked, and she lightly ran her hand over the area. “You do not like this either, do you,” she murmured.

She tensed as a dark shape entered the building and came toward her cell. Silently, he slipped three bundles through the bars and left. Éowyn sat up, drawing a quick breath at the aches that protested such movement, and carefully attempted to stand. Taking time to steady herself, she hobbled the short distance to the front of the cell, trying to keep most of her weight on her right ankle and leaning against the stone dividing wall for support. The bundles turned out to be two blankets and a small, firm pillow. Once she finished the slow journey back to the bunk, she spread one blanket out on the boards and used the other to cover herself. Neither blanket was very thick, but they kept the drafts and splinters from bothering her. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to relax and try to find sleep.

Which she must have done, or at least fallen into a heavy doze, for when she startled awake some time later the moonlight outside had changed position. Several people had entered the building, one with a torch that made her blink in the sudden light. All but one wore the livery of the Snake's guards. Two held a struggling, whining person between them while another flipped through a ring of keys. That one called for the torchbearer to bring the light closer so he could see better. She closed her eyes against the light and heard the lock click open and the hinges on the door whine as they swung open. The whining and sniveling grew more insistent now.

“No, no, this is a mistake. I'm not supposed to be here! No, stop, please, I – I have more information to give!” She heard the scuffing of multiple boots across the floor followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the ground. A moment later the door slammed shut and locked.

“Then you should've told Lord al-Jahmîr when you had the chance.”

“I just remembered!”

The other muttered a reply, their voices growing more indistinct as they went toward the door. A rattling sound indicated the new prisoner was trying to shake the cell door loose, or just draw attention.

“I demand you – no, I order you to get me out of here at once! I out-rank you!”

One of the guards called back. “Not on that side of the bars, Goldy-locks!” A ripple of laughter drifted across the air. A metallic clang answered them, which in turn was followed by a loud curse. The prisoner had evidently decided to give the bars a good, frustrated kick and had found that the cold iron was as unyielding as the soldiers.

Éowyn had not gotten even a poor look at him, but whoever he was, she found him quite irritating. Every time someone passed by the building he would yell his innocence or demand the presence of a decorated officer. Since the activity outside had only settled a little, his outcries were frequent. Éowyn was about to scream at him herself when torchlight announced someone had finally given in to his pleas.

“Commander! I –”

Éowyn looked in time to see fury on Aurens' face before he left her line of sight. “You will be quiet.”

“I'm an officer. There are protocols about – ”

“No, you were an officer. You seem to have forgotten you were stripped of your title. Now, if you do not shut up, I'll recommend you for the headsman myself. You're well on your way to going there anyway.”

“Commander, I –”

“No, I don't want to hear it. If you were smart, you'd use this night as a free pass to work on whatever story you're going to try and sell tomorrow if the search brings back nothing.”

Éowyn watched the commander leave, his pace as calm as though he'd just had a pleasant conversation and was resuming an everyday errand. Part of her was curious as to who this prisoner was, while the other part simply wanted to fall asleep again. What could an officer have done to merit being stripped of his rank and thrown into the cells? Had he come to his senses about the situation with Gondor and deserted? But if he had deserted, then what was this search about, and why would he be in such trouble if it found nothing? Despite her questions, sleep called to her, and again she drifted off. The prisoner seemed to have taken the commanders words to heart, for he had gone silent and only the occasional sound of movement came from the cell.

Much later in the night, when the activity outside had settled back to its usual slow rhythm, Éowyn woke again, this time to the soft rasping of whispers. She could not see the speakers, but from their positioning, it sounded like they were close to the first cell on the side wall.

“Did you crawl through every inch of mud on the way here?”

“Oh, how the mighty Yôpharaz has fallen.”

“Shut up. I'll beat both of you once I'm out of here.”

“I'll save space in my busy schedule, right between cleaning latrines and doing inventory.”

“So, we've heard bits, what happened? Did you really kill an entire crew yourself?”

“If I had killed the whole crew, do you think I would have come by land instead of bringing the ship into harbor as a prize? No, just the captain, first mate, and some others. I was below deck wreaking havoc when the battled turned against us above deck and we were overpowered. I didn't realize what had happened until I came up the ladder and saw my five remaining shipmates tied up in a line. Well, at that point I was surrounded, so I wisely surrendered. I'm not much use to Lord al-Jahmîr dead, am I.”

“Remind me to make a note of it on your record.”

“Anyway, that traitor Sakalthôr had survived, he had probably hidden during all the fighting and came out only when he saw things were going badly and got caught trying to swing back to the Bawâbugru.” He paused. “If, if he had not planned the entire encounter anyway so he could escape and sell all the information he had.”

“Oh come on Yôpharaz, he's not that clever.”

“Oh really? Do you have a better explanation for why, out of all the corsair ships in all the sea, he chose to go after the one that had tarks and that tark-lover Khorazîr on board? He is read to sell us all out. He's already sold us out. He sold me out! Within an hour the tarks and the corsair captain were questioning me, but I had resolved not to say –”

“I thought you killed the captain.”

An exasperated sigh. “They chose a new captain, idiot. Someone has to command the ship. Ow! Stop that.”

“People in small cells shouldn't call people with long spears outside cells idiots.”

“Do you want to hear the story or not?”

Éowyn decided she was tired of listening to the story. From the contempt and haughtiness in the man's voice, she guessed that only half of what he said was true, if that much. She tried to block him out.

“To my surprise, who should I find questioning me but the tark Steward himself. I expect Fuiner to be taking my place in here at any moment.”

Éowyn was suddenly wide awake and hanging on to every word he said. So what if she had to pick through the lies and gross exaggerations to get to the truth.

“He survived!” the pair of listeners cried in unison.

“Yes, he did, and he looked as healthy as either of you, so I question whether Fuiner really hit him as hard as he said he did. He probably has tark gold rattling in his pocket, just like Sakalthôr. Well, he interrogated me, and he is a pompous ass. He knew all about me since he's been in contact with Sakalthôr, and yet he pretended at length to come up with my whole family and military history just by looking at me.” Yôpharaz went on to boast about how he had resisted bribes and promises of gold and women in exchange for information about Lord al-Jahmîr He talked about torture the tark Steward had inflicted upon him until finally they saw how he would not break his loyalty, and thus sent him down to be chained to the oars.

“But one of the corsairs saw how I had stayed true to my oaths of service and said he admired me for it. Later when nobody was around, we struck up a conversation, and he confessed that he was not sure about this business with the tarks. I told him that if he kept working with the tarks that these would be his last days on the free seas. 'When the tarks deploy their navy,' I said, 'they'll see that all corsair ships are smashed on the rocks. All the merchandise that moves through free hands will instead find its way to merchants and traders who are already in the tark pockets, and then where will the common man trying to make a living be?' Well, that really gave him something to think about. Later when we spoke again, I told him how Lord al-Jahmîr was going to fight against the tarks and keep Umbar free and her destiny under her own control. I said how Lord al-Jahmîr was keen on ridding us all of the tark Steward, and how there was likely to be great reward for someone who alerted him to the fact that his assassination plans had been betrayed.”

“What reward?”

“Exactly. When did you start holding onto the purse-strings? I think you sniveled like you did when they dragged you down here.”

“Shut up, would you? Don't make him mad until after he's told us how he escaped.”

“You two are lot of help, you know that? I don't know why I even bother telling you this.”

“Oh, come on Yôpharaz, we know you would do whatever you had to do to get out of there, even if it meant a blow to your pride to further the greater good.” A pause. “So how'd you get out of there?”

“My corsair friend told me that the tarks were planning to land at the ghost cove and sneak their way here. Unfortunately, he couldn't work an opportunity for me to escape before the tarks left the ship, so I had to wait for several days. But, while the ship prowled the coast looking for one of the Narîka to harass, he worked out a distraction and I was able to swim for shore. The waters were rough, and I landed many miles from here, so it took me longer than I liked to bring this news, but bring it I did, and now look where it's gotten me,” he said with great bitterness. “I should be getting praise for warning the master of this great danger on his doorstep, and yet I'm rotting like a disciplinary case.”

His comrades remained quiet for several moments after this. By the end of his tale, Éowyn could hardly stomach any more of it. That he had bribed someone to help him escape she had no doubt. If the corsair ship had run afoul of one of the Narîka, then surely he would have been brought to al-Jahmîr in good condition instead of the muddy mess he apparently was in. Clearly al-Jahmîr had doubts about the man's story as well, otherwise he would not have sent him to the cells. Unless he had some other reason for keeping him under close watch.

“Why didn't you kill the tark Steward when he interrogated you?” one of the listeners ventured slowly.

“I was bound hand and foot, for one,” Yôpharaz said, “and even if I hadn't been, there were enough swords around him that I would've been dead before I could've extended my arm. I told you I'm no good to the master dead.”

“Well, yes, but if you had killed him, wouldn't you have done the master a lot of good anyway? Even if you had died?”

“There was no way to guarantee that I'd succeed,” Yôpharaz said defensively. “And I wanted to be sure that –”

His audience cursed as a bell chimed twice. “We have to get out of here before Aurens finds us. He'll hang our hides from the flagpole if he finds us here.” Their boots scraped the floor and spears tapped once as though they were being used as leverage to help the men stand up.

“Good to see you 'round again, Yôpharaz.”

“Yeah, good luck and all.”

They scurried out the door, and after the building had grown quiet, another pair of boots slowly made a few steps and stopped. Boards creaked as weight sank onto them, a long, heavy sigh aired, and then silence descended again.

Éowyn hugged the blanket closer to her. So, the Snake knew for certain that Faramir lived. The blanket suddenly felt heavy around her shoulders as the full impact of that hit her. There would be no more laxness about guarding her or letting her wander where she wanted. If she did get out of this cell, she would just be confined to another place. But how is that much different than the sentence the healers handed you? she asked herself. They do not have spears and swords to back up their words, came the reply.

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Tue 15 Jan , 2008 8:48 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“It wasn’t Captain’s fault,” said one of the pirates round mouthfuls of bread. He was a thin fellow with lank dark hair hanging into his eyes from his constant brushing down his forehead with one hand. He went by the name of Ilkay because of his pale moon-like face. His companion, a quiet man of broader build with watchful dark eyes underneath a mob of sunbleached hair he introduced as Emre, the carpenter’s mate. Faramir remembered both from the Balak anDolgu, where Azrubâr had trusted them enough to look after the spoils of battle before these had been distributed. The tidings the two men had brought had caused a stir in their company, and had made Faramir realise the full measure of his luck in the morning.

“Little golden-‘aired rat ‘ad ‘idden some treasure on him body. Bribed those as watched him,” Ilkay went on, reaching up to nervously play with his hair again, then leaning forward to help himself to more food. “Some fled with ‘im – ‘ope they’ve run far, because if Captain catch them they’re shark-food. ‘e was furious when ‘e found out. Sent us ‘ere without delay.”

“Capt’n said he reckons gold-pheasant will run direct to the Snake,” said Emre and spat in disgust. “He’s very sorry this happened. Wanted to go after that boy himself, but it was too late. He’d already swum to land – if them sharks didn’t eat him. Wouldn’t of caught him again.”

“It looks like you were more fortunate this morning than you knew, Dúnadan,” commented Khorazîr with a thoughtful, troubled gaze upon Faramir. “Had this fellow escaped earlier, and gone to Al-Jahmîr and told his tale …”

“Which he will, at the swiftest opportunity,” added Narejde with a dark glance into the fire, her blue eyes glinting.

Faramir stared into his teacup and nodded slightly. His enemy had been convinced of his death, otherwise he would never have been fooled by the disguise. And now, if Yôpharaz revealed to him who he had met aboard the corsair ship, it would not be long before he put two and two together. A thought like an arrow stabbed him: what if Éowyn was made to suffer for their secret meeting in the orchard – a meeting she had not engineered, but that fact would matter little to her captor in a fury. Also, Faramir knew he would be a hunted man now, as would his friends. Gazing into the round of folk gathered round the fire where the sheep was roasting on a spit, he knew that none of them feared the danger. All would willingly stand by him, risking their lives. Gratitude welled up in him, its warmth only diminished by the thought of Éowyn who was kept in her golden cage without any friends, and whose situation might have worsened considerably after this morning.

“It does not do to dwell on what might have happened,” said Narejde brusquely, as if to stir him out of his contemplations. “Is that not one of your preferred sayings, dearest?” she added with a slightly mischievous smile at her husband, before turning grave again. “There is no foretelling of how Marek is going to react, but I wager he will increase security. He has always been a little on the paranoid side when it came to that, and now he has got a real reason to be afraid. He knows we cannot storm his castle, but if he figures out who he met in the orchard, he also knows that we have ways of getting at him when he least expects it.”

“Do you know of more of these ways?” inquired Faramir.

“There are some we have in store still, yes, way he doesn’t expect us to take. But some are really dangerous, and I would prefer to test other options first ere we try them. Right now we have more pressing problems. This place is a good hideout, but I fear it’s not hidden enough should Marek stage a thorough search of the vicinity of his castle. He would be a fool if he did not send out men to try and hunt us down. We have spied out a couple of other places, but none is large enough to hide all of us efficiently, and moreover provide enough food and water. Therefore, we will have to split up. We must prepare to move swiftly, to be away at the first sign of danger. I say we leave as soon as we are packed.”

A murmur of agreement followed, and some of her men got up and began seeing to the tents and beginning to pack their stores and belongings. Faramir cast a rueful glance at the tent as it was taken down. The prospect of having to move to another hiding-place, despite being acutely aware of the necessity, did not appear very favourable to him right now. He had grown increasingly tired all evening, and was yearning for rest. His chest was aching dully, as were his numerous bruises due to Lôkhî’s hits. The possibility of having to tramp through the countryside for most of the night did not appeal to him at all, and he could read in some of the others’ faces that they, too, were sorry having to abandon their rather comfortable abode in the quarry. Still, if such was the necessity, there was no use fretting about it. With a sigh, he emptied his cup, suddenly recalling an issue they had discussed earlier this day, and which in the light of the disquieting tidings had taken on another level of urgency.

“There is something else,” said Faramir with a glance at Sakalthôr. The former captain had reacted to the tidings of his lieutenant’s escape with shock and dismay. Now he sat staring into the small fire, his shoulders hunched, his pale face betraying his anxiety only too clearly. “We have to wait for what Mezlâr and Murâd can tell once they have returned, but I think our first task in the days to come must be to take care of his family. Yôpharaz, the way I know him, will not hesitate to tell every detail of his captain’s betrayal to his master, and Al-Jahmîr will very likely avenge himself on Sakalthôr’s family – even make an example of them, and punish them publicly.”

Sakalthôr looked up sharply when realising he was being spoken about. He gave Faramir a thankful glance which nevertheless did not hide his troubled feelings. “I can think of nothing else,” he admitted. “What if we are too late?”

“You must not dwell on these thoughts,” Faramir counselled him rather sternly. “We will try and protect them as best we can –”

“We should set out tonight,” Khorazîr suggested suddenly. “Chances are Yôpharaz has not reached the Snake yet, and we have some hours left. If we use the mail and uniforms we took from your men on the ship, we should manage to get close enough to the house to see what is going on there, and even take action should it be required. Those remaining behind can continue to take down the camp and hide our traces, and prepare our new abodes.”

“With the Snake’s guards swarming all over the place, would it not be madness to go where they are certain to come?” objected Aralas with a worried glance at his captain.

“There are no safe places for us anywhere around here anymore,” fell in Azrahil, rising to his feet and adjusting the scimitar at his side. “We will be hunted far and wide now. Marek will not rest until he has caught and killed him, and this time for certain. The same goes for me, and mother, and Khorazîr, and virtually any of us. And I’m sick of hiding and skulking in the underbrush. I still don’t trust you, Sakalthôr, I don’t deny that, and should you take any step towards betraying us, be certain to feel my blade before you can wreak any mischief. But I agree with Khorazîr. Let’s go and find your family. Nobody will expect us to go were the danger is greatest, so perhaps we will be safer there than anywhere else for the moment. And we can cross Marek’s plans.”

“I’m all for that,” agreed Lôkhî with a grim smile, rising as well. “The lad is right. There must be great fear and confusion in the castle now, and before increased security is firmly established, and searches led routinely, let’s go and annoy the Snake a bit more while we can. Things couldn’t possibly get worse for us. I’d love to go into town and spread the tale of what befell this morning, to slander and ridicule great Marek Al-Jahmîr in the eyes of his subjects.”

Again there were murmurs of agreement, and many nods and fierce, determined expressions. More people were about to get to their feet, when Khorazîr held up a hand. “I, too, yearn for action, and would like nothing better than to add to our dear friend’s fear and discomfort, but we must not act rashly. Sakalthôr’s family needs our aid, and swiftly, but even in their case we must consider each step carefully. Also, I think the last word in everything we plan and undertake now you should have, Dúnadan.”

Faramir glanced up sharply at being addressed. He had been gazing into the fire thoughtfully, trying to determine what the best course would be for the near future. Now he raised his eyes to his friend’s. “I appreciate your trust in my leadership, Khorazîr,” he replied gravely, “yet you should consider that I am the one most caught up emotionally in this matter. You may trust in my decisions, but fact is, I do not trust myself anymore. This morning has shown that I cannot rely on judging level-headedly any longer. Therefore, I would prefer if someone else, you, for example, took over the part.”

Looking at the others, he went on, “Like you, I yearn to trouble Al-Jahmîr as much as we can, and soon. And we must help Sakalthôr’s family, and do so tonight, ere it is too late. But as for everything else …” He drew a deep breath. “I am afraid that the more we sting him, the more Éowyn is going to suffer for it. She, and our child as well. She told me that so far she has not been treated badly, but fact is she has been beaten by him, and I could tell there were things she did not want to reveal to me lest they increase the anger I already felt. I doubt her situation is going to improve, now that he knows I am alive still. Lôkhî said things could not get worse for us, which may be true. But they could get worse, much worse for her. Last year, I was forced to experience some measure of Al-Jahmîr’s cruelty and malice. And I am not willing to risk subjecting her to that.”

An exchange of guilty, troubled glances followed his words. “He’d be a complete fool if he killed her, his only protection against the wrath of Gondor and Rohan,” said Azrahil. “I cannot see him doing that.”

“He need not kill her to make her life truly miserable,” Narejde remarked quietly, “and his, too, should he learn of it,” she added, with a swift, pitiful glance at Faramir. “But let us look at the most pressing matters now. We need people to watch the castle to determine what is going on there, and to warn us should the situation become too dangerous. Also, I agree with Lôkhî that someone should go into town, to view the situation there, and perhaps cause enough mischief to distract from our true errand of reaching safer hideouts and rescue the family.”

“I’ll go to town, then,” Lôkhî volunteered, “and I’d like to take two of your lads with me, m’lady, and perhaps our two doughty corsairs here, if they’re willing.”

Ilkay and Emre, who had listened attentively to all that had been said while continuing to eat, nodded. “We’d prefer to return to town, and our ship,” said Emre. “Capt’n told us to get back quickly, as he’s eager to leave again.”

“Granted,” said Narejde. “I shall see to the preparation of our new abodes, as I am the one who knows best how to get there, and what to watch out for. Hâmadar can accompany me, and all those not needed on the other errand. You should best come as well, Dúnadan. You look weary, and we should get you to a fairly safe place as soon as possible.”

“We shall stay with the captain,” said Turgon, indicating himself and Aralas. “Moreover, we need to learn our way round here.”

“Then I will see to Sakalthôr and his family,” Khorazîr volunteered. “Azrahil should come as well, as he is likely to make a most convincing guard, having shared their training. I will ask Mezlâr and Murâd to – ah, here comes the lad.”

All heads turned in the direction of Murâd, who, hot and puffing for air arrived at the campside, looking like he had run most of the way, having shed the greater part of his armour and clutching his scimitar to prevent it from getting entangled between his legs.

“My lord,” he gasped, leaning on Hâmadar’s broad shoulder for support, “Mezlâr sends me. We, we watched the house all afternoon. There was guards nearby who were exchanged regularly, three men all the time, but they didn’t do anything but watch. We managed to overhear them, but they seemed very bored and didn’t like their duty, so they didn’t talk much and we couldn’t learn anything of interest. There was only an old crone and the children in the house, and a lass busy watering the plants and flowers. But then came another soldier, and there was a stir in the company. Something seemed to have happened at the castle, because they grew all alert and even stopped playing cards. Mezlâr reckons there’s something nasty underfoot, and said if we want to rescue the family, we must move swiftly. When I left, three more guards came, and we learned they’re waiting for the woman to return.”

Sakalthôr had leaped to his feet, his face pale. He cast a glance at the sky. The sun had gone down behind the wooded slopes of the hills and twilight was gathering between the rocks and trees. “She works until sundown,” he muttered in a choked voice, then casting an imploring gaze at Khorazîr, he said, “Please, lord, I do not care what happens to me, but get them out of there.”

Khorazîr held up his hand in a soothing gesture. “We will,” he promised. “Murâd, do you think you can accompany us back?”

The young man snapped to attention, brushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes. “Aye, lord. I just need a bite and drink, and I’ll be as good as new.”

“I shall get the uniforms, then,” said Azrahil, with a last doubtful glance at Sakalthôr.

+

Half an hour later, when the sky had darkened even more and the first stars were casting their light upon the quarry, it was revealed as empty and deserted. There was no trace of the campsite anymore, and the ashes of the fire had been cleared away, too. Only the shortened grass on the greensward down at the lake indicated that horses had grazed there, but that part was shadowed now and hidden from sight.

The company had split up. The greater part was to rejoin Narejde at the new camp, the rest was going to hide in even smaller groups at other places, ready to leave quickly, or else to run errands and exchange tidings between the various hideouts. Faramir had a vague idea of the position of the other places, and indeed the one they were walking towards now, but Narejde had assured him all were as safe as possible under the circumstances, and some far better suited for gathering information in town and the castle than the quarry.

Now she was walking in front of him on a narrow path winding between the trees. They had set out in the same direction he and Azrahil had taken to fetch the sheep. One of Narejde’s men who obviously knew the way had gone to scout ahead, with Turgon accompanying him, while Aralas and Hâmadar were bringing up the rear of their small company. Next to Faramir, Pharzi the lioness was trotting patiently. Azrahil had asked him if he would look after the creature, since she would be a hindrance on their errand. Faramir had agreed, warily. Pharzi was well fed and unlikely to engage in any mischief that night, nevertheless he felt a little uneasy with the tall predator next to him, tensing every time she drew closer to rub her hand against his hand holding the leash.

Four others, also of Narejde’s retinue, had been put in charge of the horses, which had been laden with the tents and provisions, even the half-roasted sheep. In order to throw off any possible pursuit, they were going by another, longer route which might cause them to arrive as late as the morning of the next day.

The company was only lightly burdened with what they would require to spend a night in the wilderness, but well-equipped with arms and armour. Hâmadar, Narejde and the two rangers were wearing hauberks of chain-mail underneath their burnouses and outer garments. Not a word had been spoken since the hasty farewell with the others and their setting out, the only sounds betraying their journey being the steps of boots and paws, the rustle of cloth, and the faint tingling of the mail-coats, hard to notice amid the soft nightly woodland noises and the sighing of the wind in the trees about them.

Having reached the coal-burner’s hut, Narejde set free the few remaining sheep which had been intended as their and Pharzi’s provision for the days to come. Faramir felt the lioness tense and grow alert when the small flock left the paddock and began to file out into the forest, but then she relaxed again, and flicking her ears came to rub against his leg.

“Azrahil is going to get jealous when he realises how well you get on with his cat, and she with you,” Narejde remarked when she returned to the company, her eyes glinting amusedly in the gloom.

“’Tis rather irritating to hear you refer to her as a ‘cat’, when she can rip out a person’s throat in a moment,” said Faramir, stroking the lioness a little awkwardly. “I am not really comfortable having her at my side, despite her seeming docile enough for the moment.”

Narejde shrugged as they set in motion again, following another narrow track winding between the trees, mostly stone-oaks and pines with an underbrush of terebinth, box-wood and other evergreens, and stingy but aromatic-smelling gorse and junipers. Despite the often dense vegetation, the path was mostly clear and rather easy to follow even in darkness.

“Well, it seems to me she likes you more than others,” Narejde went on. “Is it true she bit Marek once, when she was little?”

“Yes, on Tolfalas.”

“Good girl,” she said, reaching out to pat the lioness who gave a soft but quite appreciative growl. They walked on in silence a little longer, often in single file because bushes encroached on the path. A swift glance at Narejde’s stern, thoughtful face and her tensely hunched shoulders told Faramir there was something occupying, even troubling her.

“You are worried about what befell today, are you not?” he ventured.

She drew a breath, then nodded slightly. “As are all of us. Some more, some less. Those who have, like you said earlier, experienced some measure of what Marek is capable of, perhaps more than those who have not.” She turned her head to gaze at him. “I did not want to add to you worries with my remark about the Snake making her life miserable. I still think he is not going to harm her. He will want to keep her unspoilt. And I doubt he will risk losing the child.”

“Still, there is no knowing of how fear may change his designs,” Faramir finished her speech. She clenched her jaw. “You can speak your thoughts plainly,” he went on. “As much as I appreciate words of comfort and encouragement, right now, I rather doubt their usefulness.”

She nodded again. “I am afraid what may happen if he truly uses her as a hostage to lure you out of hiding. He cannot afford to let you live, moreover his pride will not allow it. He blundered while trying to kill you, again. Soon, this will become common knowledge. He needs to get rid of you, at best publicly. And tell me, what would you do if he set an ultimatum, demanding of you to surrender yourself in order to save her life? You would go, even if there was no real chance of freeing her that way. Still, you would go, to certain death.”

Faramir gazed up at the stars blinking between the swaying branches overhead. The sky was of a deep, dark blue, not quite black yet, and with the silvery stars it reminded him suddenly of the cloak he had given Éowyn, so many years ago, on the day the Dark Lord had been vanquished. He drew a deep breath, then looked at Narejde again. “Yes, I would,” he said quietly, recalling the dreadful evening at Kadall when he had run into danger heedlessly to ensure her safety. Unconsciously, he raised his left hand to his chest-wound which was still throbbing dully. Narejde saw and gave a faint nod of understanding. “You would do the same, for Khorazîr or your son, would you not?”

She bit her lip. “Aye, for them,” she admitted, without looking at him. Studying her, Faramir remembered that indeed she had risked her life for her husband, saving him from a wicked arrow released by the Snake’s half-brother.

They walked in silence for a while longer, before suddenly she sighed. “I fear for them, Dúnadan, more than I can tell,” she confessed softly. “This business with Al-Jahmîr … – somehow, I have no doubt we will destroy him in the end. Somehow, we will also rescue your wife and your child. I am confident we will. But I fear the cost will be high. We cannot expect a thorough triumph, without any sacrifices and casualties on our side. Now, I would give my life willingly to see Marek and his breed destroyed forever, and I know my son and husband would as well. But I am not willing to risk their lives, even if they are.”

She gave Faramir a fierce glance. He had been stricken by her words, and even more by her display of emotion. “Both of them would get on without me,” she went on grimly, but also with a trace of sadness. “Azrahil has grown up without ever knowing his mother, and has grown into a brave and decent if somewhat reckless young man, despite having been raised at the Snake’s court. And Khorazîr has a family, and a granddaughter to dote upon, with surely more grandchildren to follow. He would be alright without me, too.”

Faramir was about to interrupt her, by reminding her that ‘alright’ was not the same as ‘happy’, but she forestalled him, startling him with her confession. “But I wouldn’t without him,” she said softly. “I would never have thought I would come to care so deeply for someone. That I would allow myself to care, rather. But I do, now. I feel I have finally found where I belong.”

“I think he knows this,” Faramir told her gently, “and moreover shares this feeling. He is going to look after himself, and after Azrahil, too. And even after you. Indeed, I believe he has become much less reckless and more thoughtful in recent years. Perhaps you have really tamed him.”

She laughed softly, and sighed as if his remark had comforted her a little and eased her worries. “You want me to tell him this? He wouldn’t like being called ‘tame’, not even by his friend.” She drew a breath, gazing at him. Faramir thought she looked grateful for his words. “It seems I have become the tame one, getting on your nerves with all this emotional rubbish, when you have enough worries of your own.”

“Do you not think that sometimes you are a little too hard on yourself?” he asked. “Always trying to remain cool and aloof, and unaffected by any emotion.”

She snorted, having obviously regained her usual spirits. “Hah, and this from you, Dúnadan! I should really have liked to witness your outbreak today, as a proof that you can get truly angry, and show it. I could hardly believe Khorazîr’s and Lôkhî’s account. You actually yelled at them, did you? Remarkable. But then perhaps I am not altogether fair now. I have seen you and your wife together, especially during our wedding, a date which, she told me, also marked the anniversary of yours. There was no sign of the stern, restrained Steward for once, but a vivid display of his affection for his wife. It must have been difficult today, to meet her only so very briefly, and not knowing if – when – you will meet again,” she ended in a soft voice.

“You have no idea,” he admitted. “I wish there was a way of finding out how she fared. If she was badly hurt in the fall or not, and how the child is doing. Also, how did the Snake react? If he truly knows now that I am alive, I cannot imagine him not to try and avenge himself on her, who he must believe in the know. At the very least he would question her sharply, and likely deal worse with her.”

“Perhaps Sakalthôr’s wife could tell us more, should the rescue go well and the family join us,” Narejde replied encouragingly. “After all, she has been in the castle today, and is likely to have snatched up some gossip. In the days to come, we will also have a word with the stable-master. And some other sources of information I have in the castle. The biggest problem I see is that Éowyn is likely to be watched far more closely now, and not allowed anymore to roam the grounds freely. But even in her quarters, it should be possible to relay messages to her, and receive replies. Do not lose heart, Dúnadan. She is a great lady, and she has been through worse. She knows you are out here, working on a way to rescue her, and this will give her strength.”

Before Faramir was able to reply, there was a soft hooting sound like an owl – the agreed signal of caution. Swiftly, they withdrew behind trees, readying their sword, and the rangers their bows. Their path had been descending gently but steadily into a valley where a narrow stream flowed between wooded banks. According to what Narejde had described these soon turned into meadows. On the other side of the valley hill-slopes rose again, their highest reaches forested, but further below there were groves of olive-trees and small orchards. A road coming from the coast followed the stream, climbing into the hills alongside it. For this road they had been making. From where they stood now it was impossible to see it as it was still obscured by trees, but obviously the scouts had noticed something out of order.

They had only waited for a short while when soft footsteps announced Turgon’s arrival. “Captain, Lady Narejde,” he whispered when he had reached them, “we have ventured as far as the road. Nazîr is still there, watching it. There is a company of horsemen, well-armed and wearing some kind of livery or uniform on the road, a little above the place this path meets it. There is a cross-roads with a large oak-tree and some kind of large stone in the middle, there some of them have dismounted. They seem to have arrived only a short while ago, because they were still in the process of sorting out their company, and who was to do what. We counted a dozen men. It looks like some are going to stay mounted to patrol the road, while others are going to file out and hide, or search the valley. What are we to do? Waylay them?”

Faramir exchanged a swift glance with Narejde and shook his head. “Too dangerous,” he replied softly. “We could kill half the company with our bows before they noticed what was afoot, but should one manage to escape, these hills would be swarming with the Snake’s men ere noon tomorrow. Which most likely they will, anyway. And even if we managed to silence all of them, the fact none returned to report would cause suspicion, and would bring on another search-party. We must try and evade them.”

“Our way lies downstream, towards the coast,” said Narejde. “They must have come from the from further inland, because eventually the road joins the large coast-road that leads south to Umbar from Ihimbra, and beyond. We must leave the path and cut cross-country until we reach the river. It should not be carrying much water so that we can walk in its bed. Most likely they are going to search the area more thoroughly once it is light, and thus we can assure they won’t find any traces.”

Aralas and Hâmadar who had silently joined them voiced their approval, and Faramir also agreed to the plan, which seemed the most prudent. “Nazîr and I should stay behind and watch them,” Turgon suggested. “And should the need arise, we could warn you, or even draw their attention toward us, and lead them astray.”

“Good thinking, Turgon,” Faramir told the ranger appreciatively. Nazîr knows the way to the new place. Have him describe it to you, in case you get separated. And be careful.”

“Aye, captain.” Turgon saluted and vanished again to inform Nazîr, while the others began to make their way towards the river. Their journey was slow and cautious now, both because of the dense, unyielding vegetation which grew ever more tangled as they approached the river, and because they were forced to move as quietly as possible. Narejde went slightly ahead now, testing the way, halting often to listen.

They managed to reach the stream without incident. It was partly overgrown by willows and tamarisks, thus hiding it from the road running parallel about a hundred yards away, on the further bank. Narejde crossed the river cautiously to peer through the thick vegetation, before signing to the others to follow her into the stream.

“The road is clear,” she told them softly as she waded back to them. “Apparently, the soldiers are searching further up the valley. Still, we should hear new horsemen approaching, even over the sound of the river and the wind. Come on, follow me. The water is not deep.”

Indeed, it only reached up to her knees at the deepest, close to the banks were it flowed more swiftly over dark rocks, while in the middle of the stream there were shoals of smaller pebbles, some only partly submerged or not under water at all, and grown with grass and weeds.

“Stay close to the trees,” Faramir counselled, “even if walking is a little more difficult in the current of the deeper channels.” He took a step into the cold water, snorting slightly when it flooded his boots, running just a little higher than their rim. He was about to follow the others when he felt Pharzi tug at the leash. He turned to look into the glinting eyes of the lioness, staring at him from between the leaves of a bushy willow. He gave the leash a gentle pull, to be rewarded with a low growl.

With a sigh, he waded back towards the lion. “Not a friend of the water, are you?” he muttered. Pharzi gazed at him, pacing to and fro agitatedly. “Try not to engage in any mischief,” he told her softly when he reached and unleashed her. He looked down at the animal, wondering how Azrahil would react if something befell her, then clicking his tongue to make her follow, he returned to the river. There he turned. Pharzi was still watching him from her hiding-place, but after he had gone on a few steps, he saw her move as well, seeking a way between the trees. He went on more swiftly then, always keeping an eye on the lion flitting in and out of the shadows. The others had waited round a slight bend in the river, and together they continued for about half an hour, often pausing to listen for sounds on the road, sometimes even checking carefully if someone was moving there, but always finding it deserted.

Gradually, when the river’s current slackened and the shoals became broader and more frequent, some even grown with bushes of tamarisk and willow-shoots, Narejde signed them to halt. “We will leave the stream here. Further down, the trees become less dense and the road runs very close to the banks. Also, our way now leads up there.” She pointed to their right, where a long, wooded slope could be seen between the trees, rising into the starry sky, gently at first, then ever more steeply, rocky walls visible amid the dark trees.

“From the top of that ridge, we would have an excellent view on Ihimbra, looking northward,” she continued as they climbed out of the river and made their way through the dense vegetation. Beyond the riverbanks, the trees stood further apart. The ground was soft, almost swampy, and there were tall grasses and reeds growing between them.

“We are south of town and castle now. If we continued to follow the river downstream, westward, we would end up in another bay, much smaller, where a village named Badra is situated. When Khorazîr and I escaped from Ihimbra, we ended up there, after swimming along the coast. Afterwards, we fled to the place we are going to now. Come on, we must not tarry here. Where is the lion?”

To Faramir’s relief the large cat appeared promptly, slinking through the high grass. He waited until she had approached close enough to be leashed again, careful not to trample too much of the grass by going out to her. They crossed the tree-studded meadow in single file, with Aralas bringing up the rear and trying to hide their traces as best as possible. Swiftly, they made their way towards the forest, under the eaves of which, to Faramir’s and the others’ great surprise, they came upon the crumbled and overgrown remains of an old road. Roots had split the pavement long ago, and in places trees or bushes were growing in its track, but unmistakably once this road had run along the foot of the hill-slopes, from the sea further inland, like the new road on the other side of the river.

“Few people remember or even know this road,” said Narejde when he halted and knelt to study the pavement. “We will leave it again soon, and follow a path going up there, towards this patch of dark conifers. The people of Ihimbra and Badra shun the woods on this side of the river, not even daring to put their animals to pasture in the meadows or cutting the trees.”

“Why?” asked Faramir, gazing about him at the tall trees, many of which would have made prime timber for the building of ships. Also, the southward-facing hill-slopes would have been well-suited for terraced orchards or vineyards.

“Apparently a battle was fought here once, on these slopes and in the valley,” Narejde replied. “In the old days, the tarks from over the sea built a harbour in the Bay of Badra, apparently around the same time Umbar was made into a strong fortress. Not much can still be seen of their achievements in Badra, which is no more than a small fishing village now. But long ago it must have been an important place. They also built this road, and floated timber down the river to the sea for the building of new ships. But the native people here wanted to get rid of them, so they fought them bitterly – to little avail, because the tarks were far better equipped and trained in warfare. In the end the people sent East for help. According to the tales I heard, a powerful wizard supported them, and cast a dark curse upon the tarks who soon after fell ill, or were taken by a raving madness (the accounts are not very clear on that detail). One by one, they succumbed to this strange disease, or in their weakness were slain by the natives. It is said in these parts that everybody who spends a night on the very hill we are about to climb will catch the disease, and die within three days. Not even Zohrân and his men ventured near the place we are heading to, which is said to be the worst and most haunted of the entire area, even though they had a pretty good idea Khorazîr and I were hiding there at the time. Well, and I have seen to it that the old superstition has been kept alive ever since, divining that one day it might come in useful again,” she ended with a rather smug expression.

“I take it you did not succumb to the raving madness nor the disease, then?” Faramir asked, his curiosity kindled, as they left the ancient road and began to climb what once must have been another, but narrower, track up a steeper part of the hillside, into which it had been cut long ago. In places there were even steps, much cracked and often partly hidden underneath leaves and mould.

Narejde laughed softly. “We spent three days and four nights in hiding, and listening to us, you would have thought the madness had seized us immediately upon setting foot here. We quarrelled almost incessantly, and more than once drew blades to finally fight matters out. Despite the fact I had just got him out of the Snake’s prison, risking my own hide in the process, Khorazîr in his sweet stubborn pride refused to appreciate this, hating me thoroughly for the fact I had been responsible for the death of his brother-in-law. And I, oh, I hated him too, because he was a bloody Southron, and I had long ago sworn to myself to trouble and harass these folks whenever I could, to avenge myself for all the misery they had caused me.”

Faramir shook his head, smiling to himself. “Hearing you speak so ‘tis hard to imagine you did not kill each other indeed, but eventually fell in love, and even got married.”

She chuckled. “Aye, strange, is it not, how attitudes can change? I think I must even thank Zohrân in this respect. Without him hunting us relentlessly for months on end, and thus ensuring we grew to depend on the other to simply stay alive, we not only survived, but, well, began to see the good in the other.”

The trees grew denser as they climbed, and darker, too, the oaks getting replaced by pines and straggly junipers. Soon they were shutting out most of the pale light of moon and stars so that they were forced to move in almost complete darkness for a stretch. Then suddenly, the ground grew level again, and the sky became visible once more. They had reached what looked like another quarry, with a flat stretch of ground going towards the hill, and a steep, crumbling wall of rock rising behind it to a high ridge grown with wind-shaped trees. Tall, dark cypresses and yew-trees grew all about it, the most ancient-looking of which, Faramir thought, almost seemed like they had been planted long ago in their strange regularity. Remains of a stone wall, much decayed, fenced in the level ground. More stones were lying in this enclosure, which was almost free of trees, as if none had dared take root there.

“Welcome to our new abode,” Narejde said cheerfully, stepping over the low wall, and breaking the spell of awed and yet slightly tense silence which had taken hold of the company at the sight of this strange, dark and rather ominous site.

“What is this place?” asked Aralas softly, as if afraid to speak up more loudly, looking about him apprehensively, his one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “It does not look very inviting.”

“It looks scary,” Hâmadar muttered, summing up their collective impressions very fittingly.

Following Narejde who alone seemed untouched by the oppressing atmosphere of the place, Faramir stepped into the enclosure, noting that here, too, most of the ground seemed to have been paved once. Stepping closer to one of the stones lying about, he realised that it had been shaped by tools long ago. Running a hand over the weathered surface, he thought he could feel markings, or letters. “This is not a quarry, at least not anymore,” he said slowly. “It almost looks like a graveyard.”

Narejde came over to him. “It’s said that the victims of the curse or disease or whatever it was were buried here, as long as there still were tarks to bury their fellows. I hope you are not superstitious, too, Dúnadan, for this place is said to be haunted by their ghosts.”

Beside him, Pharzi rubbed against the stone, yawning. Faramir felt greatly tempted to yawn as well. He was very tired by now and aching all over, and hungry. Also, he longed to get out of the uncomfortably wet boots. He straightened and gave Narejde a weary smile. “Ghosts or no, I will not go any further tonight. Are we going to set up camp between these graves?”

“Oh no, much better. Come and see.”

She led them towards the rear wall of the enclosure. At first Faramir did not notice anything particular about the rocky surface, only that it was quite smooth in places. Then, when he stood almost close enough to touch it, he noticed a long crack, outlining a door. Narejde stepped forward and pushed with both hands. Slowly, grating on the stony floor, the door began to move. It was low, about five feet in height, but rather massive. If it moved on hinges or some other mechanism, Faramir could not determine in the dim light. When an opening large enough to admit a person had been achieved, Narejde fished a candle out of her pack, lit it, and holding it in front of her stepped into the darkness. Cool air wafted out of the entrance, carrying a stuffy, earthy smell, and causing the candle-flame to flicker.

Handing Pharzî’s leash to Hâmadar who took it with a wary expression before swiftly tying it to one of the trees, Faramir crouched low and followed Narejde into a low-ceilinged, square room. Only barely he could stand upright, his head-dress touching the ceiling. The small flame showed a smoothly hewn stone floor and walls, and three dark, low and narrow openings, one in each side, apparently leading to other chambers. The walls and floor were surprisingly dry. In a corner near the entrance was a heap of small stones and twigs, and what looked like the bones of a small animal. Otherwise, the floor was empty.

“It must have been the tomb of one or more of their lords or captains,” Faramir mused softly, looking around, his voice echoing faintly in the gloom. “Are there still any remains of those laid to rest here?”

Narejde shook her head. “Khorazîr and I searched the chambers. The stone-coffins are still there – or were when we hid here years ago –, and some crumbling artefacts of bronze or iron, remains of swords and other weapon, maybe. In the right hand chamber, we found what might have been a coat of mail once, but it also was rusted and mostly decayed. Either, the bodies have fallen to dust long ago, or else the tomb has been looted.”

“The latter would account for the lack of artefacts of precious metals, which would not have been affected by the elements,” said Faramir. “If this is indeed a tomb of the people who arrived at these shores from Nûmenor, around the time Umbar was founded, ‘tis more than four thousand years old.”

“Well, since hopefully we are going to be spending some time here, you can go and explore this tomb and the other graves to your heart’s content, Dúnadan,” Narejde said, planting the candle in a niche on the left-hand wall. “I remember there were some marks on the coffins, like runes or letters. We could not read them, and indeed we had other worries at that time. But someone as learned in the old tongues and writings as yourself might. And after all, those buried here were of your people. Men of the West.”

“Of your people, too, Silwen of Gondor,” Faramir reminded her with a faint smile.

She gave a snort. “I was turned Southron long ago. And you know, even though I resented that at first, I don’t anymore.”

+

Despite his curiosity to indeed go and explore the strange place, as soon as they had finished unpacking and sat down in the antechamber to eat a late, rather frugal meal, Faramir felt exhaustion finally catch up with him. He barely listened to Narejde as she arranged the watches for the night, for as soon as he had shed his wet boots and stockings and his outer garments, and sat wrapped in a blanket against the cool night air, he found it difficult to even keep his eyes open.

“Captain, you really should get some sleep now,” Aralas told him with a guilty expression, obviously thinking of his promise to Dorgil the healer. “I shall take over you watch.”

“Thank you, Aralas,” Faramir muttered groggily, too tired too argue. “Wake me if anything occurs.”

“Certainly, captain,” the ranger assured him.

Spreading his burnous on the floor and covering himself with the blanket, Faramir lay down against one wall, and within moments was soundly asleep.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun 30 Mar , 2008 10:28 am 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
Aralas did not rouse his captain, nor did any of the others. When the first faint rosy light of morning was creeping between the dark cypresses and outlining the narrow doorway of the antechamber, Faramir woke by himself. He was cold, and his back, chest and right shoulder were aching. Carefully, he stretched under the thin blanket to relieve the pain a little, wondering briefly why he was lying on cold stones, with a dark ceiling receding into gloom above him. A draught was coming through the doorway, but it did not entirely banish a musty, stuffy smell, mingled with a faint trace of cold smoke as of a candle gone out, and something else he could not quite define.

Slowly, Faramir sat up, drawing his icy feet towards him under the blanket and resting his back against the wall, the foot of which he had been lying against. Around him, bags and discarded garments had been piled, and an assortment of arms and armour. As he took another look at his surroundings, as far as the dim illumination allowed, recollection of the previous day set in. Of course, they were in an old Númenorean tomb thought to be haunted by the locals, after they had been forced to flee their former abode, the quarry. And the reason for that had been his encounter with the Snake, and the fact that Yôpharaz had somehow managed to escape his imprisonment on Azrubâr’s ship. Most likely he had run directly to Al-Jahmîr, who now must know that his greatest enemy was still alive.

Faramir let out a sigh when he recalled who else he had met the previous day, and how that hasty and all too short encounter had come to pass. He missed her terribly, and at the same time worried about her, with aching intensity. Had she been badly hurt in the fall he had caused? And the baby, the little one he had felt move under his hand for the first time, had it remained uninjured? And what if not? Suddenly, the cold seemed much more intense, making him shiver. How had Éowyn passed the night? How had the Snake treated her after finding out who he had faced in the orchard? The image of her resting in Al-Jahmîr’s arms appeared before Faramir’s eyes, and worry was instantly replaced by hatred and a faint jealousy. If only he knew for sure his beloved had not been made to suffer for the encounter …

Well, sitting in some dark, gloomy chamber would not present him with any solution to his dilemma, he decided, shedding the blanket and slowly rising to his feet. While he dressed, he listened for sounds outside the tomb. Birds were singing in the trees, but otherwise there was silence. Faramir wondered if his companions were nearby, and if perchance some of the others had arrived during the night. Nothing had been added to the luggage stowed in the antechamber, and surely, he reasoned, their arrival would have woken him. His sleep had been deep and dreamless – the latter surprising him now that he thought about it. After all, the past day had been more than eventful, and he had expected some of these events to reappear in his dreams.

His boots and stockings were still moist from the walk in the river, so he decided against putting them on, taking them outside with him where they could dry more swiftly. When he stepped out of the narrow opening, he almost stumbled over Pharzi who lay stretched out on her side, her leash tied to one of the nearby cypresses. He recognised the strange smell he formerly had not been able to define as hers. She had been dozing, but raised her head lazily when she noticed him and gave a low sound between a purr and a growl. Cautiously, he stepped over her, and after a moment’s hesitation, reached down to stroke her between the ears. She yawned, then began grooming herself.

“Your master has not returned yet, has he?” Faramir asked her quietly, gazing about him at the deserted graveyard. The lioness glanced at him out of yellow eyes, but it was Narejde stepping out of the shadow of the dark trees who replied, “Nobody returned, Dúnadan.”

The strain and concern in her voice were unmistakable. Her face was pale, even in the growing, rose-coloured light, and there were deep shadows under her eyes. Obviously, she had not slept the past night. “Not even Nazîr and Turgon have come,” she went on with a hard expression which nevertheless could not disguise her anxiety, “nor sent tidings of any kind.”

Faramir nodded slightly. “Most likely they had to hide from the soldiers, and did not want to risk leading them hither,” he said, trying to sound encouraging. “As for the others, if Al-Jahmîr sent out many more men to hunt for us, their journey would have been made very difficult, too. Especially if they have Sakalthôr’s small children with them. I am certain they found a safe place to pass the night.”

She gave him a long glance which clearly indicated how well aware she was of all eventualities, all that might have gone wrong during the night and prevented the others from rejoining them, permanently, perhaps. But she did not voice her doubts, only gave a small nod.

“Where are Aralas and Hâmadar?” Faramir inquired, to change the disquieting topic.

“Hâmadar is down in the valley watching the road, and Aralas I sent to the top of that ridge.” She pointed upwards, where above the steep rocky wall the entrance of the tomb had been hewn into a rocky, sparsely grown ridge was mounting.

“They have been up all night as well, I reckon?” Faramir asked, studying her drawn, tired features with a stern glance. “You really should have woken me, instead of letting me sleep while you did not.”

She waved a hand. “You needed the rest more than we did. You are not fully recovered yet, and yesterday was a hard day for you, in many respects. There will be many more opportunities for you to do your share of watch-duty. In fact, you could relieve your ranger. There is a good view from up there. Send him down again. I have another task for him. We are short of provision, with the pack-horses not having arrived yet. I need him to try and hunt some food for us.”

“There should be fish in the river,” mused Faramir. “And rabbits and all kinds of birds in the forest and shrub-land. But can we risk to light a fire?”

“Yes, if we are careful. I have already gathered dry wood and pine-cones. If you follow that path we came, you will soon come upon another leading up the slope. The tarks maintained a lookout there, long ago.”

+

Pulling on his still wet stockings and boots, slinging one of the short-bows and a quiver with arrows over his shoulder, Faramir set out. He was hungry, but decided against simply helping himself to food, as he did not know how much or how little was left. The light was growing, even between the dark coniferous trees that clad the slope. Soon, the sun would rise behind the hills in the east. Birds were singing in the forest which smelled of resin and moist earth, and numerous herbs like thyme and rosemary that covered the steeper, rockier parts where the trees stood less dense. High above an early bird of prey was soaring, crying shrilly now and again in the lightening sky. Faramir halted to watch it briefly, reminded of how Lordel’s miraculous buzzard Aiglos had made his stay on Tolfalas bearable, because it had provided him with a means to communicate with Éowyn. Now there was no such opportunity to exchange tidings. He sighed, readjusted bow and quiver and went on.

Soon, he came upon the track Narejde had indicated. It branched off to the right, and at once began to ascend steeply. Although they were cracked by tree-roots or half-hidden beneath fallen stones or creeping plants, ancient steps hewn out of the reddish stone of the hill could still be discerned, making the climb easier than Faramir had feared. Nevertheless, soon his breathing grew heavy, and he had to halt more often. Narejde had been right, he had to admit. Even though his condition had much improved recently, it still was a far cry from what he was used to. He knew he should be glad about the speedy recovery, especially under the all but ideal circumstances, nevertheless he rued the fact that his body was not responding the way he was accustomed to.

Having reached a shelf-like stretch where the path ran almost level, he stopped again, hearing something scurry away in the underbrush, which here consisted of junipers, rockroses, gorse and arbutus, and several thorny, spiky bushes he knew no name for. Waiting for a moment, he observed the spot intently. An animal the size of a large cat but shaped more like a marten was hiding there, difficult to make out because of its spotted fur, watching him from underneath the thorn-bush. As he went on slowly, it gave a low angry sound and scurried off deeper into the underbrush. Soon, he came across traces of rabbits which had nibbled on some of the herbs that grew between the stones, and he smiled slightly to himself. Apparently, the strange cat-like creature – a genet, he surmised, which were rumoured to live in Ithilien as well, but which, in all his years as a ranger, he had never seen – had been hunting for the coneys, and had been deprived of its prey by his arrival.

A call mimicking that of a jay told him where Aralas, who apparently had spotted his ascent, was situated. Right on top of the ridge, here again more densely grown with wind-shaped pines and holm- and kermes- oaks, the crumbling remains of a tower could be descried between trees and hard-leaved shrubs. Not much more than a heap of stones inside a low four-cornered wall were left of what once must have been a stately watch-tower. Next to it, there were the remains of a cistern hewn into the rock – a credit to the builders of old and their foresighted planning. And yet all their advanced knowledge and ingenuity had not saved them from a dark fate, Faramir thought as he looked at the ruins.

Aralas was perched on top of the heap, on which the first rays of the sun were playing, setting the red stone aglow. “Good morning, captain,” he greeted Faramir cheerfully, despite his face also showing traces of a long night and an exhausting day before. He had shed his burnous and gauntlets, now that the sun was out and the temperature rising. “Have you by any chance brought some breakfast?”

The climb had thoroughly warmed Faramir as well, banishing what had remained of the night-chill, and he freed himself of veil and headdress and ran a hand through his recently cropped hair. A fairly strong, fresh breeze was blowing up here, coming from the see which could be descried to the left, a deep blue broken by several tiny sails in the distance. “Unfortunately not, Aralas,” he replied. “We are short of provision. We need to catch some food first.”

Aralas made a face, but almost immediately brightened up again. “I feared it would be so, therefore I’ve already constructed some slings. There are many rabbits about, and those fat, striped lizards Lôkhî told us to look out for, as they make good eating. That’s what he said, anyway – perhaps he was just trying to fool us stupid tarks. But do come up here, captain. It’s the best spot – but watch out for snakes. There were several when I arrived, but luckily they were still cold and lazy. But soon they should become more lively.”

Faramir joined him on top of the heap, climbing carefully but not spotting any serpents, only a small red-dotted lizard resting on a stone. “Quite some view, is it not?” said Aralas as he stepped beside him. “It must have been even better when this tower was still whole and rising above the trees.”

“If there were any trees here back then,” replied Faramir. “Most likely the Númenoreans cut what timber they could use, leaving the hills bare.”

Then he fell silent, looking about. The ranger was right. The view was splendid indeed – and moreover vital for them, since from this location they would be able to spot approaching danger quickly. To the west there was the sea. Judging from the number of sails visible, there was quite some traffic between Ihimbra and the South. Faramir watched the ships for some time, trying to distinguish their kinds. Those with white sails were more easy to spot as their bright canvas reflected the early sunlight. They were small ships, of fishermen and local traders, most likely. There was no trace of any Gondorian vessel, the distinctive rigging of which he would have recognised even at this distance. And of course, it was still too early to look out for the arrival of King Elessar and the fleet, he reminded himself. If all had gone according to their initial plan, they had only just left Pelargir the previous day.

“The green-sailed vessels are Al-Jahmîr’s warships,” Faramir muttered to himself, trying to count how many there were out at sea. At least three he could make out for certain, and surely there were more, searching the bays and waters closer to the rocky coastline for a black-sailed ship built like a Gondorian frigate.

“The ‘Eagles of the Sea’? Aye, curse them!” said Aralas, translating the Adûnaic name.

Faramir nodded. “I hope Azrubâr has found a safe place to hide his ship.”

“Ah no, I don’t think he will be hiding,” said Aralas, offering Faramir some water from the waterskin he had wisely taken with him. Water had to be fetched from the river now, making their new abode less comfortable in this respect than the quarry. “He will be in the thick of things, no doubt, trying to sink one or two of those Narîka, or take them a prize.”

“Yes, I fear you are right,” Faramir agreed, after taking a sip. “Down there is the village of Badra Narejde spoke of, is it not?” He pointed to a settlement only partly visible at the end of the valley to the south-west of them. Smoke was rising from some of the chimneys and was blown up the valley by the westerly wind. Faramir thought he caught a faint whiff of tar. Perhaps there was a wharf down there.

“If we followed this ridge towards the sea, we should have a better view of it,” said Aralas. “But we’d need more people for that, as someone should remain here all the time. Has anybody arrived while I was up here?”

“Nay. Narejde is greatly troubled by that, and I am uneasy, too. Should any of them have been captured …” He did not continue. There was no need. Aralas drew a deep breath, running a hand through his shoulder-long dark hair which the wind had tangled.

“We have a pretty good view of that road along the valley,” he said, to change the subject, his outstretched arm following the line of the river which the sunlight had not reached yet. The long valley was still cast in shadow. “Any soldier coming that way, we should spot immediately, especially if they’re wearing armour that reflects the sunlight. There’s another road in the hills to the East, coming from Ihimbra and meeting the Badra-road somewhere over there. Not far from that cross-roads Turgon and Nazîr stayed at to try and distract the soldiers.” He pointed towards a ridge of hills further inland, receding in golden haze and blue-green shadow.

Faramir turned to gaze in this direction, shielding his eyes against the level beams of the sun as it rose over the ridge. The sky was almost cloudless in the East, only in the West, over the sea a few fluffy white clouds were visible. The day promised to get hot and sunny. Already the aromatic scent of herbs, so reminiscent of the smell of Ithilien that Faramir was struck with a powerful bout of homesickness, was wafting about them. Insects began to chirp and chatter in the underbrush.

Aralas seemed to feel homesick, too. “Almost like home, but for the red rock,” he muttered wistfully. “Did you see the genet, captain, down where the rabbits had feasted on the wild parsley? Turgon said he once saw one near Henneth Annûn, and nobody believed him. Perhaps I should try and catch it and present it to him when he returns. If he’s alright …” He sighed, then shook himself slightly as if to banish gloomy thoughts.

“The best view I have saved for last,” he announced, pointing towards the North. Faramir knew what sight would await him there, and actually had been reluctant to turn his eyes thither. Now upon the ranger’s invitation he finally did, and against his will, found himself smitten by the beautiful view.

Another, more densely wooded ridge was mounting between their position and the hill the Snake’s castle was built upon. Mist lay in the valley between. Beyond that second ridge, Faramir could descry the orchards spreading below the castle-hill and partly climbing it. Also, there were vineyards and groves of olive-tree, and many greater and smaller buildings scattered between various kinds of greenery. Stables perhaps, or workshops. Or armouries and barracks for soldiers. Everything was fenced in by a stout, red-stoned wall, with guards patrolling the battlements, only visible in the distance when a ray of sunlight was reflected by their helmets or round shields. Terraced fields and gardens ascended to where a second, higher wall rose. The early sun was setting its red stone aglow. Above it, there was the castle proper, and Faramir who so far had only seen glimpses of it, and hasty sketches of its sea-facing side, felt his heart sink. Even at this distance, with the actual machinations of defence impossible to make out, it looked impregnable. It seemed, not built, but hewn directly out of the majestic red rock that over-towered the town and harbour of Ihimbra, and the surrounding hills. Green banners were rippling from the many towers and battlements, and judging from the glints and flashes, there seemed much activity on the walls, despite the early hour.

“We are too far away to count the guards,” said Aralas sadly. “At least I cannot.”

“Neither can I,” agreed Faramir, straining his eyes to try and make out more details. Contrary to what Teherin and the King had feared upon examining him after his severe poisoning the previous summer, he had noticed that his eyesight, and this senses in general, had suffered no ill effects. On the contrary, even though his eyes had grown more sensitive to bright light, he thought his eyesight had improved.

“On the one hand, ‘tis comforting, for thus they are unlikely to spot us, either,” he replied to the ranger. “On the other … – we need more reliable information from inside ere we can develop a plan. And a possibility to send messages of our own. Khorazîr and Narejde were right. This place cannot be taken from the outside. Except by great force, anyway. Were all the might and fury of Gondor and Rohan combined unleashed against these walls, it would avail little for quite some time. As long as there are people in there to defend the place, ‘tis extremely difficult to conquer. I would not say impossible. I doubt the fortress has ever been tested against a determined attack. But it would cost many lives to take it. And as long as there are hostages to consider ...”

“So what can we do?” asked Aralas, casting a dark glance at the glowing red towers with their adornment of green and silver.

“We shall have to beat them with guile and wit instead of force, working from the inside instead of wasting our strength by battling their walls. All strongholds have a weakness, and there are ways of getting into this castle as well. And ways of getting at the people who defend it.”

Aralas gave his captain a surprised, even admiring glance. “You sound very convinced, sir,” he stated.

Faramir turned to him. “Do I? I was not aware of it.” He drew a deep breath, gazing towards the castle again. From here, it looked like a few hearty paces would take him there and across the walls. “I have to be convinced all will turn out well, do I not?” he added quietly, more to himself. “Otherwise, I could just take a ship back to Gondor and forget about Éowyn and Al-Jahmîr.”

Aralas gave him a long, sympathetic glance, then shaking his tangly hair out of his eyes, he stooped to pick up his gear. “I shall see to our breakfast, shall I?” he said. “And perhaps I’ll truly catch the genet. Just to have something to boast to Turgon and repay him for his tardiness. You can keep the waterskin. I checked the cistern, but the lid has been destroyed and it’s full of rubble and twigs and leaves. Someone’ll come up and relieve you, round noon at the latest.”

With that, he began to climb down again. Faramir watched his ascent for some time, pleased with how much of the slope could be overlooked from where he sat. Then he settled more comfortably on one of the larger stones which were already beginning to warm in the sun. He took off his boots and stockings to finally let them dry. Not long after, as the sun rose and the heat increased, and several of the small red-speckled lizards came forth from cracks and holes between the rocks to bask in the sunlight and hunt for insects, he rolled up his sleeves and even the legs of his wide trousers. With a faint sting he recalled how Éowyn had teased him (not without a tiny hint of jealousy) about the tan his lower arms and face had acquired on the journey to Khiblat Pharazon, making him look like he was wearing long lightbrown gloves. During his recovery he had lost some of it again, and had to be careful not to get burned now.

He recalled he had forgotten to ask Éowyn about something he had seen in the Palantîr, and which had made him worry about her treatment by her captor. In the vision, her skin had looked strangely red as if after a severe sunburn – she did not tan easily –, although the previous day it had been back to its normal hue – the ugly marks where the Snake’s fist had struck aside. The thought to this dealt him another stab of anger, immediately replaced by worry. He turned his head to gaze at the castle.

Where was she accommodated, he wondered? Did her windows overlook the sea or the gardens? Did she have windows at all, or was she forced to spend her time in a dark cell? Despite the heat, Faramir felt cold again of a sudden at the thought of her languishing in such a hole. Still, so far, apparently, Al-Jahmîr had treated her fairly decently, not counting the strokes, and those things she had not mentioned to him out of fear of hurting or angering him even more. Yet he thought he knew her well enough to perceive if anything really bad had happened. But how had he dealt with her last night? The question gave him no rest.

It was unlikely the Snake would truly harm her or the child, his only shield against the united wrath of Gondor and Rohan and a good part of the Harad. Both were powerful hostages. Hostages to try and lure me out of hiding, too, he thought, and suddenly the full meaning of this struck him. What if there would truly arise a situation where Al-Jahmîr demanded his surrender in exchange for her and the child’s life? He had told Narejde he would give his life willingly for them, and he had not boasted to her, but truly meant what he had said. Yet his life, he now reasoned, was not his own to give anymore. Three young boys back in Gondor had as strong a claim on it as had Éowyn and their unborn baby. He had promised them to return. He had also promised them to return with their Mami. And he had vowed to Éowyn to find a way to rescue her. Gazing at the castle, its walls glowing like fresh blood, he sighed. So many promises. Would he manage to keep them all?

+

Around noon, as Aralas had announced, Hâmadar appeared. Faramir had by then left the ruined tower to walk along the ridge for a stretch, to prevent himself from falling asleep in and get burned by the sun. Also, the snakes the ranger had mentioned earlier had suddenly begun to infest the rocks and feed on the lizards, and since they were of a kind Faramir knew to be poisonous, he had preferred not to remain too close to them. Thirdly, the walk had distracted him somewhat from his ravenous hunger.

But his first inquiry upon meeting Hâmadar, who looked a little sleepy still, as if he had just woken from a nap, was after any new arrivals. The tall Southron shook his head, his expression uncharacteristically screwed up with worry. So far, Faramir had only encountered Khorazîr’s guard as a man of almost stoical reserve, as well as quiet competence, and thus was stricken by the other’s display of emotion.

“Do have a word with the lady, sir,” Hâmadar told him as he took bow and quiver from him, and the waterskin. “She refused to get some rest, told me to sleep in her stead. Did not eat a bite, either.”

Faramir clasped his shoulder briefly, before hurrying down the path.

+

He found Narejde standing at the edge of the graveyard, in the shade of one of the cypress-trees. She was retying the sash that kept her wide burnous in place over the shirt of mail she wore underneath, and adjusting the belt of her scimitar. Not far from the entrance of the tomb, Faramir noted only when he drew even closer, a small fire was burning almost smokelessly in a ring of stones. There was an aromatic smell of burning cypress-wood, mingled with – causing his stomach to rumble audibly – that of roasting meat.

Resisting the temptation, however, he steered his feet in Narejde’s direction. Her tense stance, and the hasty gesture she slung a bow and a quiver of arrows over her shoulder with told him something was wrong. His suspicion was confirmed when she spotted him, and for a moment looked like one of his sons who had been caught nicking his brothers’ favourite toys. Almost instantly, however, her expression changed to a stern and guarded one.

“Your ranger is asleep in the tomb,” she told him matter-of-factly, “and there is some food left for you. Have you seen anything untoward from the lookout? Any movement on the road?”

Faramir shook his head, still watching her closely which, judging from her bearing, she was very much aware of, and which was making her uncomfortable. “No tidings from the others either, I reckon?” he asked.

“Nothing,” came her curt reply, and she displayed her frustration by kicking away one of the small cypress-cones lying on the ground.

Casually, Faramir approached her by a few steps. “You do not consider setting out to look for them, do you?” he asked calmly, his gaze upon her watchful.

Her cheeks flushed, and he knew he had guessed right. He took another step towards her, sensing her anxiety, and the fact she was angry at him by appearing just when apparently she had made up her mind to leave, and now was spoiling her plan. Almost soothingly, he went on, “Narejde, you know you must stay. ‘tis to dangerous to –”

“Don’t speak to me of danger,” she returned fiercely, her eyes flashing as she turned to him fully. “I cannot sit here idly, not knowing what befell last night, if they have been caught or wounded, if they are still alive. I must find out what happened.”

“I agree we need information about their fate. But we cannot risk leaving this place in broad daylight – especially not if we are so few, too few in fact to guard our hideout properly. We cannot afford to lose another companion.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So, you too believe them lost!” she stated impulsively.

“I did not say so,” returned Faramir, speaking cautiously, aware of her troubled feelings she did not care to conceal for once. “I believe they are wise and are hiding from the Snake’s men, and are going travel on after darkness has fallen. Which is the only sensible time for travel at the moment, and you know that. Take heart, Narejde. And keep your head. You must not leave now. You –”

“You cannot command me like one of your rangers,” she interrupted him with a wild expression which told him that at the moment, trying to reason with her would be to little avail. “I have a right to find out what happened to my husband and son. In fact, I have as much right to do so as you had yesterday, when you walked into the Snake’s very orchard to see your wife. So do not try and hinder me now.”

With a last fierce glance at him, she turned to leave, but swiftly, Faramir closed the distance between them and caught her by the shoulder. She tried to shake off his hand and walk on, but he did not allow it, grabbing her other shoulder as well and forcing her to halt, turn and face him. She tried to wind out of his grasp, but he had clutched her firmly by the voluminous sleeves of her burnous, careful not to hurt her while still restraining her as best he could. For a moment she looked tempted to strike him and struggle more violently, but she resisted. Her gaze, however, was deadly, reminding him of the fierce, cruel outlaw, the guise of whom he had first encountered her in.

“I will try, Narejde,” he told her sternly. “I will not let you endanger yourself out of some folly. You know you are being unreasonable, and it does not become you. Yet, I understand your reasons, too. Do you think I like lurking in these forests when my heart yearns for action? Do you believe I am not nearly out of my mind with worry? Do you think I enjoyed watching how my wife was carried away in the arms of the very many who wrought all this evil, wondering if I shall ever see her again? But I tell you, I prefer all this to having to tell Khorazîr how you lost your head and ran off to let yourself get caught and slain by the Snake’s guards.”

At the mention of her husband Faramir thought he detected a change in her expression. Her tense shoulders sagged, and her head drooped ever so little. “Khorazîr will not return,” she said, her voice hard. “I know something bad befell him last night. We have been parted so often before, but never, never until now have I had such a bad feeling. He is gone, I know it.”

Faramir gave her a sympathetic look, but she had turned her head away and was staring at the stony, sun-speckled ground. “I must confess I did not know he means that much to you,” he said gently.

“Neither did I,” she admitted, still not looking at him.

He squeezed her shoulders encouragingly. “He will be very pleased to hear this when he returns. Come on, Narejde, cheer up. ‘tis too early to worry. Khorazîr is very difficult to capture or kill, as he has proven over and over again in the past. He knows how to look after himself, and he will spare an eye for Azrahil as well. Do not lose heart. Wait until tomorrow, and if nobody has returned by then, we will have to send out someone to gather tidings anyway.”

Very slowly, she raised her eyes to his and gave him a long glance, as if trying to determine his sincerity. At length she nodded, patting his hand briefly as a sign of gratitude. “If we are not careful, we are going to be fighting each other in no time,” she muttered, reaching up to fasten a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

“Indeed. And we would be playing into Al-Jahmîr’s hands if we did,” agreed Faramir, letting go of her shoulders. “Therefore, we must be careful not to allow any contention amongst us. Come now. You look like you have not rested at all since yesterday. Which means ‘tis your turn after Aralas has finished his nap. I will suffer no debate, and if I have to put the lion in front of the door to keep you inside.”

He was relieved to see how the corners of her mouth lifted a little. “Quite some threat, Dúnadan,” she remarked.

“Do take it seriously,” he replied. “And what about food? You have not eaten either, I reckon. I am pleased that this way more is left for me, because I am very hungry. But I will not have you starve yourself, and then endure your husband’s complaints that only skin and bones is left of you.”

She snorted, a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. “Skin and bones indeed! And this from someone as lean as yourself. I should leave all the meat to you, or else your lady will think we did not keep you well.”

“Well, I looked far worse after my return from Tolfalas,” he stated, “and she did not complain. Luckily, you fed us very well during our sojourn at Khiblat Pharazôn. As if in foresight that we should need some extra strength for the days to come,” he ended quietly.

Narejde nodded slightly while they set in motion in the direction of the fireplace, next to which a rabbit and three trouts, already roasted (and even seasoned with herbs) had been placed on a flat stone. “It seems so long ago already, the wedding and everything. Being back at this place –” she waved a hand at the graveyard before settling down on one of the rocks, Faramir taking a seat opposite her, “—reminds me so strongly of the first time I hid here. It almost feels I have never been away, and the men out there hunting for us are Zohrân’s. I only wish that stubborn, quarrelsome Southron whose presence I endured last time was here with me again.” She sighed, gazing into the dying fire.

“Khorazîr hated this place, and would have moved on immediately. He said the place reeked of tark still, even after all those years – indicating that I made the stench worse. Oh, how we quarrelled that first night. They must have heard us down in Badra, shouting insults at each other. At one point I tried to stab him with my dagger, but unfortunately he was stronger than me and unarmed me. He tied me up and told me to keep watch, while he rested. I did keep watch, but I also made sure to rouse him every half hour.” She smiled at the memory. “You can imagine how he enjoyed that.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Faramir, smiling as well. “The more I learn about your ‘courtship’, the more I marvel you ever fell in love at all.” Pointing at the meat, “Coney or trout?” he asked.

“As a good wife, I should say trout, to keep the rabbit for my husband who does not like fish.” A mischievous glint stole into her eyes. “But I say we eat it, and leave the trouts to him, to repay him for his delay and the worry this caused us.” Helping herself to food, “You are right, we had the most unusual courtship, if you wish to call it that,” she went on. “It took us a long time to fall in love, longer to finally admit it to ourselves, and then even longer to tell it to the other. Not like yourself and your wife. According to what I heard, things were settled rather quickly between you.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow. “According to what you heard?”

She laughed softly. “I admit to questioning her about it. I did not believe what was commonly said, that your marriage had been a political match arranged between Gondor and Rohan. She told me how things really came to pass. Well, her version of it, anyway. Apparently you took quite a risk back then, telling her so plainly about your feelings for her.”

“Not as great a risk as stepping into the path of an arrow intended for the man you love,” he returned, at which she smiled.

“Perhaps not.”

Their talk ceased as both concentrated on the food. After the meal, which had consisted of the meat, a few bites of bread and the rest of the peaches, as well as cactus-fruit Aralas had gathered before he went to sleep, Narejde indeed retired to the tomb once the ranger had emerged, tousle-haired and still looking sleepy. He was soon wide awake, however, when Faramir told him how as yet none of the others had returned.

“Not a good sign,” muttered Aralas, reaching up to fasten his hair with a leather band to prevent it from hanging into his eyes. “Do you want me to relieve Hâmadar up on the lookout?” he then asked.

Faramir nodded. “Aye. He can come down here and look after the camp. Sitting too long in the burning sun up there makes you sleepy, and you were right about those snakes. When he comes, I shall go down to the river and fetch some more water, and see what passes on the road.”

+

While waiting for the arrival of Khorazîr’s guard, Faramir extinguished the fire, before strolling about and gathering more wood and cones. He was tempted to have a closer look at the ancient gravestones and the withered writing on some of them, but decided to concentrate on his surroundings rather. Pharzi was watching him lazily from where she lay stretched out on the stones, in the shade of the dark trees. It was well she had eaten so much the previous evening, meaning they would not have to worry about feeding her today. But they needed to find a way of getting more provision, for themselves as well as the lioness.

A soft growl from the lion announced Hâmadar’s return. He reported that one of Al-Jahmîr’s green-sailed warships had made port in Badra. “I went along the ridge right to its end, where it falls steeply towards the sea,” he explained. “There is a good view of the village and its harbour. I saw how a number of soldiers landed and began rounding up folk on the quays. They searched the village, and questioned a number of people. Their captain held some kind of speech, apparently warning them what fate awaits them should they consider aiding us. I did not understand what exactly was being said, but there was a lot of murmur amongst the villagers. Apparently they do not like having the soldiers around.”

“Is the ship still there?” inquired Faramir. The tidings albeit worrying had not surprised him.

“Nay, they set out again soon after, when the tide had turned, but not all soldiers went aboard. They were stationed in one of the largest houses, much to its owner’s dismay. I reckon they are going to show up around here one of these days. If they dare,” he added with a smirk which made his white teeth stand out in his sun-darkened face, and caused the curious bluish tattoos on his cheeks to form new, even stranger patterns.

“We will have to be careful nonetheless. We cannot rely on superstition alone to keep safe in this place,” said Faramir, before instructing the other to remain in the camp, and informing him about his own plans. “I shall take the lion with me. She needs to drink, after all.”

+

Despite growling annoyedly at first, as soon as they were on their way down to the river, Pharzi seemed to enjoy the walk. She rubbed against Faramir’s legs, and even swatted playfully at the tassels hanging from the quiver of arrows he had slung over his shoulder. He had taken it and the short, curved bow with him as a precaution, despite not being sure if he would truly manage to string and shoot it should the need arise. His shoulder still pained him from time to time, and each deep breath reminded him that the cracked rib was not fully healed yet.

Down at the river, hiding between tall grasses, willow-boughs and bushy tamarisks, he let the lioness drink while he refilled the waterskins. Even though the road running a little above the further bank was also mostly hidden by trees, he knew he would be aware of any movement even over the low murmur of the river and the sigh of the wind which turned the willow-leaves and made the trees glint like silver in the sunlight. Black dragonflies zoomed to and fro between the grass-stalks, their wings edged with bright blue. He had not seen their kind before, and was suddenly reminded of how his sons had been fascinated by a large emerald-green dragonfly they had spotted over the frog-ponds shortly before they had set out for Rohan. It seemed ages ago now. He sighed as he recalled their high excited voices, and how Elboron had tried to catch the insect and almost fallen into the water. What were they doing now, he wondered. Éomer would have left Gondor by now, too. Would they stay at Túrin’s and Visilya’s, keeping Vorondil company? Did they miss their parents as much as they missed them? What would they say when they returned, with a little brother or sister in tow? If they returned …

He gazed into the clear, flowing waters as if they were a Palantír and could show him his sons’ faces or that of his wife, and lifted a hand to his chest where he carried the boys’ drawings inside his shirt, together with Éowyn’s lock of hair. Then he tensed. Pharzi had raised her head suddenly and was listening attentively. Nothing was to be seen and heard on the road, no glint of mail nor beat of hoof or heavy boot. Nevertheless, his senses, honed to sounding alarm even at unseen or unheard danger, were highly alert. Apparently, someone was approaching not on the far side of the river, but on the hither shore.

Slowly, he reached for his bow and strung it, which went better than he had feared. He was accustomed to stringing and shooting a stout longbow of about his own height, and the short, curved weapon seemed more like a toy. But he had seen in the past how deadly this toy could be if handled skilfully. He placed an arrow on the string and waited, silently praising his long garments which gave some protection from the many gnats and midges hovering between the grasses. Not long, and he could see two figures approaching through the tangled vegetation at the river’s bank. They were walking slowly and carefully, one lagging a little behind. Was he wounded, or was he trying to hide their traces? As they drew closer, Faramir saw that they were wearing the Snake’s livery, but had slung some cloth round the helmets, and covered the mailcoats with wide burnouses. He had to credit them for their thoughtfulness, despite his heart running cold. Where there were two of them, there were likely to be more. Apparently Al-Jahmîr’s soldiers were not as fearful and superstitious as Narejde was relying on. Carefully, he took a glance about, but since the lion’s attention was fixed on these two only, for the moment they indeed appeared to be the only enemy at hand. And despite their armour, they were no match for the bow if he allowed them to shorten the distance even more – and providing his injuries would not impair his ability to hit his aim.

Presently, the first of them halted, gazing about intently. Had he noticed the hidden watchman? Had he smelled the lion? The second man caught up with him, and Faramir saw that the staff he was carrying was not a spear as he had thought at first, but a longbow. And as he half-turned to cast a glance over his shoulder, a quiver with long, green-feathered arrows showed at his back. Turgon, shot through his mind. If only their faces had been visible … There was only one way to find out for sure.

Bow at the ready, Faramir gave a call mimicking that of a jay. He saw both men tense and turn in his direction. The one in front reached for his sword, but the second placed a hand on his shoulder, and returned the call. Then he raised his hand and gave the rangers’ signal that danger was over. Faramir let out a sigh of relief and lowered the bow. The two men set in motion again and approached carefully, checking again briefly when he rose out of the grasses.

“Captain, is that you?” asked Turgon when they had drawn close. He looked as relieved as Faramir felt. Both he and Nazîr seemed utterly exhausted, their faces though flushed by heat and exercise drawn and haggard – Turgon even sporting a bloody cut across his nose, and Nazîr carrying a bandage on his left arm. Yet there also burned a fierce, excited fire in their eyes. Apparently they had had an eventful night.

“I though we wouldn’t make it,” said Turgon as together they withdrew into the shadow of the tree Faramir had been hiding underneath. Freeing his head of helmet, mail-coif and cotton cap, as well as the makeshift wrapping, he reached for the waterskin and poured a good deal over his sweaty hair, before drinking deeply. Nazîr stripped off even more of his armour and disappeared in the direction of the river.

“He received quite a blow to his side, and a scratch along his arm,” explained the ranger with a pitiful glance at his companion, before taking another long draught from the waterskin. “But by Oromë and Tulkas the Strong, he is a mighty good fighter, that Nazîr! He’s utterly crazy, of course, but captain, he does know how to handle a scimitar.”

“Turgon, might you be so kind and tell me what befell you last night?” asked Faramir with a slight smile. “You are the first to arrive of the other companies. We have not had any tidings from anyone. What delayed you so? And why do you show up here in the Snake’s livery? I almost shot you because I thought you were enemies.”

“No wonder, captain,” said the ranger, swatting at a gnat buzzing round his head. “The hills are swarming with the Snake’s men like an anthill that has been stirred with a stick. It was the only safe livery to wear. Oh, hello Pharzi,” he added, with a tiny trace of discomfort, when the lioness showed up behind him suddenly. Hastily, he made room for her so that she could settle down beside Faramir. “She does like you, doesn’t she? Anyway, you may remember we stayed behind last night to watch these soldiers up at the crossroads. Nazîr – quite a daring fellow, that – had this idea we might be able to do more than just watching. He proposed we lead them astray and thus keep them off your track, and away from the road. Which we did.”

Catching Faramir’s gaze, he added quickly. “I know it was dangerous, and we nearly got caught, at which point I began to doubt it was such a good idea. But we prevailed. And captain,” his eyes lit up, “what fun we had. It was almost like back in Ithilien during the War, when we repeatedly fooled these foul orcs. We lured the soldiers into the forest. Like good fellows, they split up into small groups so as to better hunt for us. One of those parties we waylaid and took their gear, and then we went right up to the next, and pretended we had been attacked by men wearing the Master’s livery. You can imagine what followed. The rest of the night, we watched those brave lads hunt each other, and even, which was best, attack another company which had come down from the direction of the Umbar Road. Took them awhile to get things sorted out. Round dawn one of their captains came up to us and sent us to report to a fellow named Rahmân who apparently is stationed in Badra village now, and in charge of the search in these parts. If you ask me, I find it rather splendid that the Snake’s men are so many that they don’t know each other well.”

He took another gulp from the waterskin, looking very pleased with himself. Nazîr appeared between the tress and reeds, shaking wet hair out of his eyes. He was a brown-skinned man of medium height and build, and curly black hair which usually he wore tied back in a thick braid but which now hung lank down his back and shoulders. Golden rings glinted in his ears, and his black eyes burned like coals in his sharp-cut face. Faramir reckoned him to be in his late thirties, although it was difficult to tell with his weather-beaten features.

“It looks like the risk you took paid off well,” said Faramir appreciatively. “Even though you may have made things more difficult for Khorazîr and the others, because now the soldiers will be hunting for men wearing their livery, which our companions may do as well. Nevertheless, you caused quite some confusion in their ranks, and delayed their progress, which is well.”

“Has my lord returned yet?” inquired Nazîr while dressing again. Faramir shook his head. “You are the first who came. We have had neither tidings of Khorazîr’s company nor Lôkhî’s, nor of the men with the pack-horses. But come. You are weary, and hungry, too, most like. We are short of provision, yet there is some fish left for you up in the camp.”

“Where is that?” asked Turgon. Faramir described the way to him. “Hide your traces in the high grass,” he cautioned as the two set out. “And be careful that Hâmadar does not shoot you,” he added with a wink.

+

The day wore on. Faramir was pleased when in the early evening, Narejde came to relieve him of watch-duty at the river, because by then the stinging insects had become a real nuisance. The lion, too, seemed glad to leave the riverbank, bounding ahead of him towards the forest as far as her leash would reach. The camp was watched by Aralas, who had exchanged places with Hâmadar again. The two others were asleep in the tomb. The ranger reported that two companies of soldiers had set out from Badra along the road. One Faramir had seen, too, but they had moved past him and the dark slope their hideout lay on without even looking in the direction, and at a brisk pace. Apparently they really feared the place, or just considered it to be of no importance.

The second company, said Aralas, had swerved into the hills on the other side of the valley. “Narejde said there were some places where shepherds tend their flocks, so they are likely to go and investigate. I keep thinking we should send someone into the village, to see what the soldiers are up to. Turgon said they were sent there by our green-clad friends.”

“If anybody goes, it should be Nazîr and Turgon,” said Faramir. “They seem to blend in very well with those soldiers. But they need to rest first. Have you caught your genet?”

Aralas shook his head and grinned. “It gave me the slip. I did catch two more rabbits, however, and a shot a small deer-like creature. Or perhaps it’s a wild goat. And got more of these cactus-fruit, although I was stupid and picked them without wearing gloves. Now my hands itch like madness. When the lads go down to Badra, they must fetch some more food, though, for when the others return.”

If they return, Faramir added in thought, the ranger’s tense, troubled expression telling him how the other shared his anxiety.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun 04 May , 2008 3:34 am 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
While Faramir and Aralas surveyed the countryside from the ranger's lookout, two rhythmic proddings against her shoulder woke Éowyn from a light slumber in her cell. Frowning, she opened her eyes and looked down to see a thin gray cat nestled in the crook of her right arm, pumping its front paws as though it was trying to soften a cushion. “Enough of that,” Éowyn mumbled, trying to shift away from the cat's reach. Aches and jolts of pain coursed up her left side and through her back. No doubt she was bruised from her fall, and her body clearly protested having to rest on a hard board most of the night. The cat stood and stretched, its back dipping down into a long arch, before lightly jumping from the bunk, padding across the cell, and slipping between the bars.

Éowyn watched the creature leave through half-opened eyes. She was cold, and what light she could discern seemed to indicate it was early morning still. Coughing, she slowly began to sit up, hoping that this would at least ease some of the pain in her back. Her dress had wrinkled in the night, and the sheen looked out of place in this damp prison. Rubbing her eyes, she was surprised to notice that few sounds came from outside now. The night had grown progressively quieter, but now it seemed as calm as any other morning. Was that a sign of good news? Likely there would be some kind of celebration, even at this hour, if the Steward had been captured and killed yet again.

Now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, she noticed someone was stretched out in front of her cell door, wrapped in a blanket much like the one she had around her shoulders. The bundle stirred as the gray cat walked up its torso. “Ugru,” she heard a voice murmur as a hand reached from under the blanket to rub the cat's ears. Éowyn grimaced as her stomach rumbled loudly. The hand paused its caress, and the cat had to scamper out of the way as the person sat up. Éowyn was slightly startled to see that it was Aurens, his hair ruffled and weariness etched on his features. “You're awake,” he said simply, slowly rising to his feet and stretching.

Éowyn nodded. “What news?”

He shook his head. “Nothing of great interest to you,” he said quietly. “Obviously the patrols have found nothing important, or I would have been alerted long ago.” He muttered, “Keeping them out all night was hardly worth the effort.”

Éowyn breathed a quiet sigh. She did not doubt his words. Perhaps Faramir and the others had managed to slip from the Snake's grasp in the darkness. Then she wondered if that buffoon in the other cell still had a few more secrets to tell. Or lies. In times like this, even a liar could unwittingly tell the truth when situations changed without his knowledge. But surely they would not hide anywhere he might imagine.

“Your breakfast should be coming in about an hour,” Aurens said, breaking into her thoughts. “But I'll try to see if I can speed things up.”

“I want breakfast,” came a sleepy voice from the other cell. Aurens closed his eyes briefly and clenched his jaw.

“Thank you,” Éowyn murmured.

The commander nodded and turned to leave, then turned again. He leaned forward and put his hand around one of the iron bars. “Is it true what they say about you in the songs?” he asked in a low voice. “That in the War, you alone brought down the chief of the Great Lord's forces?”

Éowyn shook her head. “Not alone,” she replied. “A Halfling dealt him the first blow, I the final.

He nodded slightly and appeared ready to ask another question. But before he could form the words, a household servant entered the building, carrying a tray covered with a thin white cloth.

“Much sooner than I was told!” he exclaimed, unlocking the cell.

Éowyn's stomach rumbled at the smells of cooked eggs and fresh bread escaping from under the cloth. Despite her hunger made herself break her fast slowly, lest she come down with a case of indigestion later that morning. After the servant had left, she noticed that Aurens was still watching her, though at times he seemed to contemplate something far beyond her cell.

“Your husband, the Steward, he wasn't on the battlefield that day?”

Éowyn swallowed the bite of pineapple. “He lay up in the City,” she answered quietly, “dying from the Black Breath while his father attempted to quicken his passing.”

“So he never saw your great triumph.”

She shook her head. “Neither he nor indeed many others witnessed it, for it was amid the heat of battle.” She looked at the bit of fruit in her hand though her mind was lost in memories. “We sang for death to take us,” she murmured, “but some of us left with our lives instead.”

A young soldier, still with the morning scruff on his face, came in and saluted, then spoke softly with his commander. Aurens frowned. “Tell him I'm on my way,” he said. The soldier saluted again and hurried away.

Éowyn lifted her gaze to meet Aurens'. His features seemed to carry a twinge of sadness, or regret. He gripped the bar, then loosened his hold. After another moment, he left without a word. Éowyn wondered what had called him away.

She finished her breakfast and stretched carefully, taking stock of where the more serious aches were located. Her upper back and shoulders protested the most, though several other parts joined in the chorus. She wanted to stand and try to loosen some of the stiffer muscles, but she knew her ankle would not bear enough of her weight to keep her balanced. Lying down on the bunk again would not ease her any either. Thus, she sat and listened to the sounds of the garrison coming to life and wondered how her husband and friends were faring.

But her thoughts were jumbled, and restlessness took her. She folded the cloth that had come with the breakfast tray, then immediately undid her work and folded it a different way. After some time, another servant came back for the tray and muttered “Bugger!” when she realized that there was no one around to unlock the cell for her. More time passed, and somewhere a horn sounded twice. Soon marching feet passed by outside at a quick pace, and it was well over a minute before the sound faded. Just how many soldiers did this garrison hold, Éowyn wondered, as she heard scattered, more casual footsteps go by later. Occasional laughter drifted to her ears as well as snatches of conversation, but nothing she could understand clearly.

The shadows grew smaller as the sun climbed in the sky, and Éowyn stared out her cell, looking in vain for the commander or a servant to bring her some water or even a guard. The haughty prisoner in the other cell had complained to the empty air about his hunger, but she did not see a need to acknowledge him, and indeed, no one else did either if they were in hearing range. He had fallen silent as the day grew hotter. She shifted on the bunk, trying to find a more hospitable position. The child was restless as well and added to her discomfort with sharp kicks.

Shortly before noon, as the heat made her lazy and quiet, she glanced up and saw Aurens and three other guards striding toward the building. Too slowly did she realize that their expressions were grim and set hard. The commander barked his orders as they crossed the threshold. “Make sure not a trace of her remains,” he said. “Not a hair, not a thread. She was not here.” He entered her cell and took a brown sack from somewhere on his person.

Éowyn drew back the little that she could, suddenly unsure of him. There seemed to be no hint of the gentlemanly spirit he had shown her previously. His manner was all soldier, all commander, as he reached for her arm and pulled her forward.

“Aurens, what --” she managed to say before the sack was over her head and she was plunged into semi-darkness. She gave a sound of surprise and dismay, muffled somewhat by the cloth and then a kind of cord or sash that tightened to keep the sack in place. Disoriented, she grunted as he lifted her less than carefully and whisked her out of the cell.

“You! Face that wall!” one of the guards yelled. “Don't even think of turning around unless you want my blade in your guts.” She guessed they were passing the occupied cell, for Aurens had hardly gone a few more steps before she felt hot sunshine on her skin. He paused for a moment as footsteps caught up to them, then hurried on. Éowyn tried paying attention to the route they took, but they frequently passed from sun into shade and back into sun so that she could not tell whether they had gone within a small building or merely under an archway or through a shadow. Stairs – she was certain from the sudden jolts that they had gone down at least two sets of stairways before they entered a cool, darker place and slowed. She shivered at the sudden change in temperature. They descended again, and from time to time her feet scraped against stone.

They stopped. Keys rattled, a lock clicked, and a heavy door creaked on its hinges. They moved a few paces, and she felt the commander shift her weight. Suddenly she found herself sitting down, feet on the floor, shoulders against what felt like the rough panels of a straight-back chair. She did not have long to consider this before she felt hands grab her wrists and pull them behind her, binding them with cord. When those were secure, she felt her ankles being bound to the front chair legs. It had happened so quickly she had not had the thought to struggle. But now, sitting alone, in the dark, hearing the shuffle of boots on stone and muffled voices, she felt almost near panic. The air in the sack had grown stale and too warm for comfort, and taking shallow breaths only made her feel more uneasy. Her mouth was growing dry, so that not even licking her lips brought any relief.

“Are the knots tight?” she heard the commander ask. “She's clever enough to find a loose one, even like this.” Someone tugged at the bonds and confirmed their hold. “Alright then, let's move out.” As the first set of steps began to grow distant, she felt a hand squeeze her shoulder gently before another set of steps sounded. The door creaked shut and locked, and what she had thought was darkness grew darker. A few short moments more and all was quiet.

Do not panic, she ordered herself. You can guess where you are. Khorazîr had described part of his stay in al-Jahmîr's dungeons, dark, damp cells connected to narrow tunnels. This place felt like it was underground, even if she was blind. What had happened to inspire the Snake to send her to this pit? Had there been an attack on the castle? No, the mood had been far too calm for that. A threat then? Or did he simply want her moved to a more secure location? Or to unnerve her further?

She tried to push the questions from her mind, knowing that she would play into whatever plans al-Jahmîr had by fretting over something she quite obviously had no control over. She tiled her head back and tried to relax her shoulders. Her left wrist and arm ached, the unnatural twist doing no favors for the tender muscle and bone. She could not discern how much time passed as she sat there before she heard someone approaching. It could have been a few minutes, or, by the way her stomach began to complain, it could have been an hour or two or more.

The door opened and only a single set of boots entered, quietly, slowly. They paused in front of her, and she wondered if it was Aurens come back to take her elsewhere or at least untie her. But no, she felt a hand pass down the side of the sack as though caressing her cheek, then following the hidden curve of her neck and down the front of her dress and coming to rest on her rounding belly for a brief moment. She tensed and tried to slip out from under the touch, but the knots were tight and she did not have the strength to try to scoot the chair and all. The person moved behind her and undid the binding that held the sack in place and removed it from her head.

Despite her silent command to remain controlled, she sucked in a deep breath of cool air and let it out again quickly, glad to be able to breathe normally again. In that second, she took in her surroundings in the dim light of a torch stuck in a ring on the wall. This place surely looked like a dungeon, with rough stone walls that she could have nearly stretched and touched if her arms had been free. The cell was very narrow indeed, though it appeared to be several feet longer than it was wide.

Hands gathered her hair back onto her shoulders and brushed stray strands from her cheeks and forehead. She kept her gaze focused on the cell door, not giving him the satisfaction of seeing her twist to identify her visitor. He soon crouched in front of her anyway. Shadows flickered across his features, making him look much older. Judging his expression was difficult. He seemed sad, resigned, and yet he almost wore a half smile as he watched her. His eyes were stern and calculating, but his hands were gentle as he cupped her face and studied her. She returned his gaze with a cold stare. And then he darted forward and kissed her, tenderly at first, but then more urgently. Éowyn protested and tried to turn her face away, but the Snake held her jawline firmly. When at last he finished and drew back, she wanted to spit in his face, but her mouth still felt like sand.

“Must I always tie you up to steal a kiss?” he murmured, stroking her cheek.

“Why have you brought me here, Snake?” she demanded in return, her voice hoarse. He rose and took a step back.

“Your friend Khorazîr – or should I say your husband's friend, your other lover? The stories are so difficult to keep straight anymore – stayed here once,” he said. “But long enough, unfortunately. Since then we've remedied that little problem. You're underground, almost beneath the center of the castle, and quite difficult to get to even by the proper means. Should I keep you here, it would be hard to leave without my say-so.”

He crossed his arms and glanced at the flickering torch. “But I'm not sure I wish to keep you here. It is not where I imagined you to make your stay. It's cold, and damp, and the rats are quite bothersome I've been told, and the lice are quick to take hold. I'd hate to have to relieve you of that golden crown.”

Why do you bind me so and then make apologies? Éowyn thought. Your words are poison mixed with honey. Have you really convinced yourself that I believe the things you say? Why must you always talk? She looked past him as he droned on, hardly taking note of his speech. Thus she was not prepared to hide her stricken reaction when he took a slender chain from his pocket and held it up to the light. The silver glistened and the aquamarines sent tiny orbs of light onto the walls.

“So you recognize this,” al-Jahmîr said upon her cry of surprise and dismay. “Strange, for I do not, for it was not on your person when I brought you here. Nor have I had it made for you, nor is it in the style of any of the artisans from this area. The craftsmanship is quite lovely,” he said, turning the necklace in his fingers. “Why would you hide such a lovely thing under a loose tile?”

Éowyn watched as he lightly tugged at the links, feeling a kind of despair well up in her. 'Tis only jewelery, she tried to tell herself. Let him focus on it instead of you. But more of her wanted to rip the chain from his grip and curse him for tarnishing it with his filth. It was her token, and he had no business handling it.

He paused and looked her the eye. “How did he get this to you? Answer me!” he thundered when she did not reply immediately.

“He gave it to me in the orchard,” she said, turning her head when he brought his face close to hers.

“What does the note say?” She could smell a hint of wine on his breath, leftover from lunch, perhaps. Her mind raced to find a lie he would believe, if he would believe anything now. Her weariness and hunger and discomfort made concentrating a chore.

“It says... it says nothing you do not already know. It says he is alive and working to free me,” she said finally.

“How?”

“It does not say. He knew it could fall into the wrong hands.”

Al-Jahmîr straightened and walked toward the door. Then he turned and gazed at her keenly. “Why go through the trouble of sneaking into my orchards and orchestrating an accident that could have gravely injured you simply to give you a necklace and a note that, from what you said, contains the same information you could have seen with your own eyes?”

“He... he was not sure if he would be able to speak with me.”

“But he did. So why give you the note? Why give you either? Your tale is weak, Éowyn. There is more to this than you say.” He tossed the necklace into the air and caught it again. “You will tell me.” With that, he took the torch and swiftly left.

+++

And she did.

+++

It was mid-afternoon. Beyond the boundaries of Ihimbra, the sun shone brightly on the grasses and sparkled on the waters of the bay as they gently splashed into the harbor and onto the shoreline. Heat radiated off the hills, causing the air to shimmer. Song birds twittered in the trees, and occasionally a yellow parrot darted from one grove to another.

But deep within the fortress, Éowyn sat alone in the darkness, her head slumped into her hands. She knew not anymore whether her dress was soaked with sweat or blood or tears. Sweat – yes, for even here in the damp cells terror made the pulse race and pores open. Blood – yes, for the clean, precise cut that began just below her ribs and followed alongside the thin dark line that ran down her belly was still open.

“I do not know much about midwifery,” al-Jahmîr had said slowly when he returned and sat on a stool in front of her. He opened the case and studied its contents. “But I do know that it is far too soon for that child to be born.” He lifted a large hook from the case and turned it so it caught the torchlight. “Far too soon.”

You mean to frighten me, Éowyn thought. He would not dare to harm his great prize or the child, she was sure of it – or at least not greatly. He had hurt her already, but nothing like a lasting injury. All this was a ploy to wear down her defenses. The isolation, the aches from being tied to a chair, the hunger – these were barbs intended to make his offer look appealing. But her resolve would not fail. He was a coward and resorted to a coward's use of threats to get what he wanted, or he employed someone else to do the nasty bits for him. He had come to her alone. There was no one for him to push the unpleasant tasks upon. A worry had nagged at her then. What if he does do his own dirty work sometimes? Immediately it was answered with, No! He has always sent assassins or poisons or some other shield between himself and the attack. When has he ever done something himself? But then again, how much do we really know about what he does? How could he be so skilled at orchestrating attacks if he had no experience actually leading them? She watched him warily as he lifted several more devices from the case – what looked like a long corkscrew, a set of heavy pincers, a spiked troll's star – and put each of them back after an examination.

“My scouts have not brought me the information I want,” he said after several moments of silence. “They patrol the hills and canyons, the village streets and harbor docks, and yet nothing seems amiss. There are rumors of course. My brother's thrice-cursed whore is lurking somewhere in the shadows – but that one has a habit of resurfacing. Another says that the northern navy is in the outlying waters, waiting for the signal to form a blockade. My ships report that the coasts are clear. And then there is the rumor that says the angry, restless spirit of the late Steward of Gondor has descended from the mountains where he was slain and is on my doorstep, woe unto me.” He laughed darkly and looked her in the eye. “Can you believe such superstitious prattle?”

Éowyn shifted slightly in her seat. The Snake was calm, and that made her nervous. If he had been furious or agitated, or even somewhat distracted, she would not have the clenching feeling around her heart. He was calm, and he his attention was focused solely on her.

“But yesterday there was a man in my orchards,” he continued. “Unusually tall for one of our own stock, though he tried hiding it. His friend made me believe for a time that he was just an idiot boy, but there was a keenness in his eyes that did not suit a stupid's mind. His face though, his face was interesting. Such a clean-shaven look is hard to come by with the peasantry. Not a nick or cut from an errant blade or a hint of a day's stubble on the cheeks. Something did not seem right then, but I attributed it to the strangeness of the situation in general. But then late last night I received a report from one of my men that no angry, restless spirit had descended from the hills but the living, breathing Steward himself.

“He has proved to have some useful information, but I'm afraid that well has run dry. Now I'm going to draw from a different well.” He lifted a short blade from the case. “Tell me, Éowyn, where is Faramir?”

How she hated the sound of her beloved's name on his lips! He had tried to impress her with his clever observations from his orchard meeting, but for all that he would not get knowledge that she did not have.

“My answer remains as it was: I know not,” she replied quietly. “What use would it have been for me to know? I do not have the freedom to walk out the gate and meet him there.”

Al-Jahmîr reached over and ran the blade across the front of her dress, just below the bodice. The silk parted easily. Éowyn drew a startled breath. Another threat, she told herself. That blade did not touch you.

“He must be close,” the Snake went on. “Close enough to know what is announced in town, and yet far enough away to escape the notice of the patrols. He cannot be more than a few miles away,” he said almost to himself. “But there are plenty of places for a single man to hide. Ah, but he is not alone. He had a convincing old crone with him. Who was it?”

Éowyn chose her words carefully. “One of his men.” If the Snake was going to play a guessing game, she would keep him guessing. She gasped as again the blade ran across her, this time slicing through the underdress. The next layer was skin. She stared at the frayed cloth.

“No, I don't think it was.” He tugged at the cloth until it tore down the front, exposing her round belly. “None of his men could pretend to be such an accurate harbor-town crone. The accent, the gestures – those came from someone who's been hit with a cane a few times.” Éowyn flinched as he ran his hand over her middle. “Perhaps it was one of the whore's thieves, or one of her dishonored husband's rats. How anyone could lower himself so much to wed a filthy slave like her.” His voice grew quiet and trailed off, as though he had forgotten where he was or his business. Then he shook himself slightly, and his coldness returned.

“But enough with speculation. I want to know what you know.”

“I know very little, for we did not have much time to talk,” Éowyn said wearily. “Your 'speculations' are likely– ” She cried out in surprise as he drew the blade down her belly, lightly near the top and with somewhat greater pressure toward the bottom. The blood began to flow slowly, for it was not a very deep cut, but it was long and painful. Éowyn's wide eyes took in the red ribbon. She tried to swallow, but her breath was coming too quickly. He had dared to harm her! She twisted against the cords as anger began to take hold of her. Was he going to risk torturing her to get what he wanted?

“How brave of you to harm a bound woman,” she snarled. “And how foolish to torture your only protection against the combined wrath of Gondor and Rohan.”

“Your value remains the same no matter if you're unscathed or covered in bruises,” he growled. “As long as you have a breath of life left in you, you are worth everything. Didn't your dear husband's stay as my guest show you how much a person can live through?” He lifted the hem of her dress and wiped the blade on it. “I've thought about what would make you talk when I want you to talk. Unless my patrols run across Faramir or his band of hill rats, I can't very well hold a threat against him over your head today. It would take too much time to work a plan against your brats in Ithilien as well. Yet I'm sure I know what threat will make you meek as a lamb for me.” She flinched as he held the blade to the bottom part of her belly again, pressure but not piercing. He asked softly, “Have you ever seen what happens when a child is cut from a woman?”

Fear began to mix with Éowyn's anger. Surely he was bluffing. If he wanted to frighten her, well, he had done that, but she still could not believe he had serious intentions of harming her or the child. Why destroy his best defense? He has had no qualms about destroying Faramir, she remembered. Even on Tolfalas, especially on Tolfalas, he gave the order to end his life. You know what he said was true: even battered and bruised you're worth everything. As long as you live, Faramir will not stop trying to rescue you. She caught her breath. Even if you are beyond recovering.

Al-Jahmîr had not stopped studying her, watching her thoughts play across her eyes. “Where has Faramir been and what has he done between the attack on the village and his visit to my orchards?” he asked. “Do not expect me to believe you did not ask him the very same question.”

No, I cannot, I will not betray his confidence, Éowyn told herself. What will keep the Snake from doing as he pleases even if you do tell him what he wants? You will have lost both your honor and your only bargaining chip. A different thought sent a chill down her spine. You have hardly eaten or slept and you are shaking from distress. How much more of this can you take, can the child take, before a miscarriage begins? He can sheath the blade, but you cannot change course once the loss has begun. How well she knew that pain and heartache! She had lost one child already, and despite the healers' words of assurance, despite Faramir's belated words of comfort, despite everything that pointed to the contrary, a solid piece of her believed that miscarriage almost six years past had been her fault. If she had rested more, if she had eaten a different diet, if she had done something else instead, perhaps she would have carried her first baby to its birth. You can still save this child, that voice whispered to her. She closed her eyes. Faramir can take care of himself. This little one has only you.

Growing tired of her silent hesitation, al-Jahmîr gave the blade more pressure. Tears slipped past Éowyn's eyelashes. One way or another, your child will die.

“He went to Minas Tirith,” she blurted, and then dropped her head. “As soon as he was well enough to travel, he returned to speak to the king.” Forgive me, léofa, dearest Faramir. I had to choose. She did not see the darkly pleased smile appear on al-Jahmîr's lips.

+++

Éowyn's shoulders trembled as she muffled her sobs. She had told him everything she knew, and even some things she had guessed at. The Snake knew how long Faramir and their friends had been scouting the countryside. He knew that the fleet was on its way and would be bringing her brother's riders. He knew Narejde and Azrahil were indeed nearby, and Khorazîr as well, with their own soldiers at hand. Her words, at first tinged with panic and fear, faded to dull statements as his questioning continued. By the time he was satisfied with her account, she was so drained that when he cut the cords that held her to the chair she did not move. He even left the cell door open on his way out. She had stared at the insult a few moments before hiding her face. There was no denying she had nowhere to go, even if she had felt enough strength to run.

She had stopped the bleeding as best she could with her dress. The cut was very tender, and each breath she took sent tendrils of pain across her middle. It was not very deep at all; the cat probably had given her deeper scratches in a moment of feline anger. But it would serve its purpose as reminder and warning. A cold feeling settled on her as she realized she had not felt the child move since earlier that morning, when she was still above ground. The little one was as tired and upset as the mother, and was obviously just resting now, she told herself weakly. She tried not to give thought to the worst, yet every time she pushed those thoughts from her mind, a different set of woes took hold.

You betrayed him. He came back from death for you. He risked certain death again to see you. And you said everything you could think of because you were afraid of a little knife. She moaned and ran her fingers through her tangled and sweaty hair. What else could I have done? I could not risk angering him anymore. Hah! Is this what you have become now, shieldmaiden of Rohan? A sniveling old woman who crumbles with fear? You have grown soft, weak. There was a time when you boldly sang for death. No, I was young and foolish then. I did not have little ones needing me, calling for me, crying for me. She shuddered as she silently waged war with herself. You were responsible for a nation, and you fled in disguise under darkness to seek death. The songs are wrong. You were never brave, never bold. You were hopeless, and when all you wanted to do was throw away your life, nothing was dangerous.

Her sobs were reduced to ragged breaths and sniffles as exhaustion took over. She was thirsty, desperately thirsty. An attempt to call out for a guard, a passing outlaw, anyone, barely made it past her cracked lips. Her face felt hot and swollen, and occasionally a shudder passed through her. Keeping her head up was a great effort, so she let it drop back down onto her hands.

How will you ever look him in the eyes? Any of them? Khorazîr and the rest risk just as much, and you owe them a great debt. How will you ever repay them?

Her back and shoulders ached, first from being unnaturally arched against the chair back and now from trying to correct that by leaning forward. Lying down might help, but she was unsure how steady her movement would be now. What was going to happen now? It had been at least an hour, if not two or more, since the Snake had left. Did he plan to keep her here indefinitely? Would he at least send something to take the edge off her hunger and thirst? Had he left that cell door open as a challenge, or as a statement that she was free to go when she wanted?

Hurrying footsteps echoed off the walls outside. A strange sound accompanied it, like a scraping. Voices rumbled, but she could not make out what they said despite the growing closeness. To her surprise, three figures appeared the doorway, and then to her sudden dismay, the one held up in the center was thrown onto the floor of her cell.

“Visitor for you,” one of the others scoffed, slamming the door behind him and plunging the cell into semi-darkness. Now Éowyn heard the struggles for breath and the ominous gurgles that accompanied each one.

“Who are you?” she asked, dreading the answer.

The other's first response was a choked breath, but a moment later he rasped, “Îbal, one of Narejde's...” He coughed harshly and groaned.

“How did they catch you?”She carefully slipped from the chair, half-fell, really, to sit by his side. Between the gasps and broken words she learned that Îbal and another had been keeping an eye on one of al-Jahmîr's patrols when a second set of soldiers came across them not far from the castle. They fought madly, but they were greatly outnumbered and his companion was slain. Éowyn reached for his hand and drew back when she felt wetness and a disturbing lack of fingers. “He tortured you,” she stated without emotion.

Îbal gave what might have been a defiant laugh if he had been able to get a deep breath. “Bastards didn't get... word of truth.” He coughed. “Are you...”

“I am well enough” she replied, tearing a strip of cloth from her dress and wrapping it around what was left of Îbal's hand. “This is my first day in these dungeons.”

“Leave it,” Îbal muttered, shifting on the floor. “No use.” Éowyn nodded in the darkness. Whatever else the Snake had done, it would be enough to take him. His breathing grew more labored, and his speech descended into incoherent murmurings. “Zimrakha... banâth zîrân... êphal, êphalak...” She wiped his brow as he called out for his far-away beloved. In another moment of clarity he murmured, “Tell Narejde... tried...”

“I will,” she promised. “You did well.” Not long after, she heard him sigh and knew she had other news to tell Narejde.

“It's not right,” she said quietly after awhile. “You, Iorlas, the other rangers... How many more will die because of me?” A sudden dizziness came over her, and she swayed a little. Grimacing, she stretched out on the rock floor to try to ease the feeling. She tried to stay alert, but weariness overcame her as well.

+++

When she woke some time later, she felt like she had hardly woken at all. Her mind was foggy, and why did she feel so cold? She became vaguely aware that she was moving, and the message got through to her head that someone was carrying her, and other people were talking around her. Their voices seemed loud and harsh, and she wanted them to leave her in peace. She heard “fever” and “idiot man” before falling back into the comfortable blackness.

Her next waking was much clearer. She found she was in bed with a surprisingly heavy blanket tucked around her. Night had fallen, and a small lamp was lit in the far corner of the room. Pushing the blanket aside, she tried sitting up and caught her breath as pain shot up her middle. Feeling her belly cautiously, she discovered the cut had been bandaged and she was wearing a plain nightdress. In the faint light, she noticed that this was not her usual chamber. The shadows in the room moved, and Éowyn saw someone come toward her with the lamp in one hand.

“Drink this.” She recognized the voice of one of the household healers and took the offered cup, sipping slowly then drinking greedily once her body realized it was getting liquid. “Now, here is some buttered bread, a little cold chicken, and a peach.”

“Where am—”

“You can ask questions in the morning. For now you need to eat and regain your strength. You hardly kept anything down while you were feverish.” The healer allowed no argument and gave her another piece of bread and some melon when she had finished the first handout. She was given another cup of water, and then the healer told her to sleep. Arranging the pillow, she wondered if the brief meal had been enough to wake her up for good, but as soon as she put her head down, she felt sleepiness return. She had almost drifted off when a brief movement jolted her into wakefulness. Pressing a hand just above her left hip, she felt another flutter.

Relief overwhelmed her. She could not recount every hour of this day, but she knew that despite all that had happened, her child was still well. Éowyn curled up as best she could, her arms encircling the bump in her middle. Wrapping herself around her child was the only way left for her to protect her little one. But for how long would that protection last?

“No one will harm you, my love,” she said. Then, shutting out the worries and fears that made that promise look as flimsy as her nightdress, she began to murmur the lullaby that she had fallen asleep to as a child, and that she in time had sung to her sons, of the white pony that lead children to their dreams. In short time she was asleep as well.

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon 05 May , 2008 9:00 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
As evening drew on, Faramir set out to relieve Hâmadar of his watch upon the ridge, taking a bow and arrows, a blanket and another waterskin with him, and for supper some cold meat and two cactus-fruit. He had volunteered for the first watch, and indeed intended to remain on picket-duty for most of the night, knowing he would not be able to sleep much anyway.

Even though he had tried to cheer up Narejde, and encouraged her with confident words, he could not shake a deep feeling of anxiety – a feeling he knew the others shared. Turgon’s and Nazîr’s tidings had been comforting and worrying at the same time. The two had been lucky in having fooled the enemy’s soldiers, but their account had also shown how tight the net had already been drawn round them. How would they manage to evade capture, so close to the Snake’s very abode? It would only take a doughty captain who cared naught about old superstitions to find and storm their new hideout. And what then? Those who managed to survive and flee would have to scatter even more to save themselves. And the chance of freeing Éowyn would diminish even more.

He forced himself to banish these gloomy thoughts from his mind as he ascended to the high place. Things would change, he reasoned, once reinforcements both from Khiblat Pharazôn and Gondor arrived. Even if they could not storm the castle, they would be able to roam the countryside more freely, under better protection, since skirmishes with the Snake’s soldiers would more likely be decided in their favour. Also, the acquisition of food should run more smoothly, despite the need of more provisions for more people. If only they managed to survive the coming week or fortnight, and evade capture, things should improve again.

+

On the heap of stones the last rays of the sinking sun were playing as it went down into the sea behind the massive silhouette of Ihimbra castle. More clouds had gathered in the west, touched by gold and crimson and all shades inbetween, but they did not threaten rain. The wind had freshened up, making Faramir’s burnous flap and flutter round his legs. He was glad he had brought the blanket. The night promised to get cold.

He found the tall Southron standing at the edge of the ruined cistern, his back towards the glorious sunset, surveying the road in the valley and the farther slopes keenly. Halting beside him and turning to follow his gaze, Faramir detected movement between patches of shrub- and woodland, small fields and orchards ringed by stonewalls.

“Soldiers,” commented Hâmadar with a trace of contempt. “They have been up there for a while now, searching the hill in small groups. At one time they accosted a shepherd. You can see him and his flock over there.” He pointed toward a low stone-building round which a moving mass of grey was gathering. “Obviously, he could not help them, and they allowed him to move on in peace. He is going to be watched, however. See the guards stationed near the hut?” Faramir nodded.

“The soldiers came from Badra,” Hâmadar went on, “and now it looks like they are gathering again to return there. Soft, pampered maggots that they are, surely they cannot bear to spend a night in the wild.”

“Do not underestimate them, Hâmadar,” replied Faramir quietly. “They may not be used to hardship the way we are, but right now I do not envy them. Al-Jahmîr and the captains under his command are certain to give them a hard time. They will be driven relentlessly to try and catch us, and woe unto them if they fail.”

The Southron gave a short laugh. “They may try, but they will not succeed. Mistaking our men for their own, what fools!”

Faramir smiled about their other’s remark, before sending him down to the camp to get some food and rest. Hâmadar was quite eager to leave, to listen to Nazîr’s and Turgon’s account which so far he had only heard in short from Aralas. Faramir settled down on the stones still warm from the sun. The snakes had withdrawn into holes and cracks, and the lizards were gone as well. Night insects were beginning to chirp in the underbrush, and somewhere in the woods towards Ihimbra an owl was hooting sadly.

Slowly eating his supper, Faramir watched the soldiers file down onto the road, to then march on towards Badra. Soon there were lost in the deepening shadow of the valley, and he turned his gaze towards the castle instead, a dark, forbidding mass against the burning sky, despite its many lit windows. Beyond it and to the right, more lights were shining: Ihimbra town and harbour lay there. He wondered how Lôkhî and his companions were faring in that place, but he did not worry as much about the little man as about the other company. Lôkhî knew how to lie low, and he would not have to look after a woman and two small children. If those had been freed at all.

Thinking of the fate of Sakalthôr’s family immediately brought on thoughts of his own children. Were they abed yet? Hopefully. It was rather late already. But surely Rían and Lóthiriel and whoever else looked after them would have seen to it. Were they sleeping peacefully after a day of play and adventure, or were they being kept awake by longing for their parents, or by bad dreams? He sighed. It seemed so long ago that he had last seen them, and how much worse, he thought, must things be for Éowyn who had been parted from them even longer. No wonder she had felt a trace of jealousy when he had told her of his meeting with their boys.

He gazed at the castle, wondering again which of the many windows might be hers, before forcing his mind to consider other matters. It did not do to dwell too long on his worries, otherwise he would certainly go mad. How to get more food – now this was a task to consider. An alternative supply of water might also be wise to find, as he would not put it beyond Al-Jahmîr to have wells and rivers poisoned to catch his enemies. They needed swifter and more secure ways of communication, now that they were split up into various companies, and they would require a place nearby to withdraw to should things go terribly awry, and they could no longer remain this close to Ihimbra.

While he considered these matters, night fell round him. Again he was amazed how much swifter dusk changed into almost complete darkness in these parts than what he was used to back home in Ithilien. Soon only the stars shining brightly cast light on the sea and the hills about, while in the castle more windows were lit, and even fires and lanterns on the walls and battlements. Shadows could be seen moving there: it seemed like the number of watchmen had been increased yet again. Faramir shook his head slightly upon realising this. What did Al-Jahmîr believe he was up to? Did the Snake think he was going to try and storm the castle all by himself? Not that he did not wish to.

Still, this massive increase of guards and the many patrols of the countryside could only mean that his sudden, wholly unexpected appearance in the orchard – his return from death, so to say – had truly shaken great Marek Al-Jahmîr. Frightened him into paranoia. Faramir took some grim pleasure in the thought. “I hope it keeps you awake tonight, Snake,” he said softly. “And all nights after.”

+

It was well after midnight, and Faramir had begun to wish for someone to come up and relief him, as he was beginning to feel tired. The wind had increased even more, driving clouds over stars and the thin crescent moon, as soon as it had risen. The air had become chilly. To warm himself, Faramir had left the heap of stones, and had begun to walk along the ridge, the blanket wrapped about his shoulders, bow and arrows hanging loosely from his right. This time, he set out following the ridge inland, so as not having to face the wind.

He had not long passed the place where a darker shade on the steep hill-slope as it fell away to the South indicated where the cypresses surrounding the graveyard grew, and where a few careless steps would send him down a sheer drop towards the paved floor of the old cementary, when suddenly his senses sprang alert with the foreboding of danger. At first he did not know what exactly had alarmed him, but he knew he could trust his instincts, which so often before had saved him while campaigning in the wild.

He halted, shedding the blanket in order to be able to move more freely, and to be able to swiftly reach bow and arrows, and stood listening intently. Only the wind moaning in the trees and the nightly sounds of the forest about him came to his ears. He waited for quite a while, standing motionlessly, until he began to surmise that apparently he was more tired than he had been aware of, and that his senses were beginning to play tricks on him. However, the strange unease as of impending danger did not leave him, and weariness or no, he decided to try and investigate the source of it.

Down below in the camp things were quiet. No scent of the fire was discernable. There was no movement on the road down in the valley, which he could see quite clearly from his elevated position: a narrow silver-grey band winding alongside the broader one of the river, when moon and stars were unveiled for a spell to cast their light. To the north, most of the lights in the castle and beyond in Ihimbra town had been extinguished. Only the walls and battlements were lit with watch-fires, lamps and torches burning brightly. But their numbers had not increased, nor had Faramir detected any greater activity among the guards. So what was making him feel so tense of a sudden?

A sound from below captured his attention, and turning swiftly towards it, he beheld a large bird bursting from the trees in the valley north of the ridge. He could not recognise its kind, but surmised it to be an owl. Nothing unusual for these parts. He had heard these nightly predators hooting repeatedly throughout the night. But something about the hasty departure of this one alarmed him. Someone is down that valley, shot through his mind. Someone with no business there after nightfall.

For a brief moment he hesitated, considering whether to alarm the others immediately or to go and investigate first. He decided on the first. Better to sound false alarm instead of delaying a warning. Stooping, he picked up three stones roughly the size of his fist. Then stepping over to the edge of the steep wall that made the rear of their hideout, he let them drop in quick succession, silently hoping he was not going to hit someone on the head. Still, this had been their agreed signal, to prevent the watchman on the ridge from having to descend all the way to the camp in order to warn the others. He listened to the rocks hitting the hard ground below. There was a pause, then the bark of a fox told him that his message had been received.

And something else he heard, on the other side of the ridge: noise in the valley below. From what he had been able to see during the day, the woods down there were dense and tangled with thick underbrush, the denser the gentler the descend of the slope, which close to the ridge was very steep and rocky, even steeper than on the southern side. This had been the reason for them to assume the main danger to come from the Badra-Road which lay in southern direction, and not from the side facing Ihimbra castle. Narejde had said there were no roads in that forest, not even paths. Faramir knew she had scouted the area carefully before venturing such a statement. However, by the sounds, someone was trying to pave a way through the forest, path or no. And they were not caring to tread noiselessly – a strange thing for friend or foe alike. Neither would want to be heard and draw attention to themselves. Unless … unless things were not going to their liking.

Changing his mind about waiting for the others to join him on the ridge, knowing that as soon as they reached it they would hear the sounds as well as they were quite clear now, Faramir began to descend the slope, careful not to slip on loose rocks which made footing tricky and dangerous in parts. Luckily, there were many trees growing from crevices in the rocky walls, to provide hand- and footholds when required. Soon he had reached the forest proper, and he halted behind a large prickly juniper, drawing his scimitar and listening. What he heard caused his blood to run cold. There were not only sounds of people crashing through the underbrush, there also was the clash of metal on metal – which could only mean one thing: a fight. And who should be fighting in these parts if not some of his own company and the Snake’s men?

Cold determination gripped him. He had to get closer and see what was passing there, and if required, give aid. As swiftly as the increasingly dense and tangled vegetation allowed, he approached, careful to look out and listen for possible enemies. Little light was reaching the forest floor, and he was forced to navigate mostly by his ears and sense of touch and smell, grateful once more for his long experience with missions of this kind. How often had they thus crept upon a company of Orcs or Southrons in Ithilien during the War? Some things one did not unlearn, apparently, even after more than a decade of peace.

The sound of battle grew louder as he approached, and he was glad about the noise as it hid the sound of his own movements, cautious though they were. Now and again he halted to listen more carefully, and to ascertain that nobody else was creeping through the underbrush, although their movements of course would also be made virtually noiseless by the din of melée. Still, Faramir knew he could rely on his instincts and well-honed sense of danger: he would know if anybody was close by. Judging from the noise, there was some heavy, desperate sword-fighting going on ahead. Suddenly, an agonised cry went up – and it was a woman’s voice that screamed in terror. Immediately after, a man’s voice was raised in stern command, ordering people to remain where they were and not to break their defences. With relief, Faramir recognised the voice as Khorazîr’s. He sounded unhurt, and in control of the situation. So this was indeed his friend’s company, and they appeared to be hard pressed by attackers.

There was no time to lose now. Swiftly, Faramir wound his way through the forest until he reached a high bank near the bottom of the valley. In front of him, the ground fell steeply some twelve or fifteen feet. Hiding behind a bay-tree near the edge, he surveyed the scene below, readying his bow. A small stream was running there, it’s bed thickly grown with weedy plants, many of which were lying flat and trampled now. A small company was standing in the noisy brook where it ran broad and flat over pepples, surrounded by a ring of enemies. Most people seemed to be wearing the Snake’s livery, friend and foe alike, but Faramir was able to recognise his friends as they had shed their helmets and heavy mail-coifs. They were standing back to back, swords ready in their hands. At least, most were standing. One figure was lying in the water. Faramir could not recognise its features. He did see Khorazîr, however, trying to hold his little company together. Azrahil was there as well, and Mezlâr and Narejde’s guard, who went by the name of Dirar. Also, there was a smaller person not clad in uniform, but also wielding a sword. Faramir assumed this to be Sakalthôr’s wife, which could mean that the figure in the river was either the former captain himself, or Murâd. There was no trace of Sakalthôr’s children.

From what he could see from his position, the small group had already seen some heavy fighting. They looked exhausted, and some appeared to have been wounded. Even though they were holding their ground bravely, reacting to any attack from their beleaguers, it was plain to see they would not last much longer. Several bodies were scattered in the downtrodden vegetation, yet there were still almost a dozen soldiers surrounding the desperate company. And they were closing in.

“Surrender, tark-friends!” one of the soldiers now commanded harshly. Fish-mail armour was glinting dully underneath his surcoat, setting him apart from the other soldiers in their less elaborate hauberks. Obviously, he was the leader of the pursuing party.

“You will not get us alive,” came Azrahil’s fierce return. “And more of you will fall if you try.”

“Silence, bloody traitor! Believe me, I will watch with pleasure when Master Al—”

Azrahil never found out what Al-Jahmîr intended to do with him. Before the soldier could utter another word, the impact of an arrow driving cleanly through the mail-coif and piercing his neck from behind sent him stumbling forward, conveying him to the ground where he lay motionlessly. Two more men fell before the soldiers even began to search for this new and well-hidden enemy. Chaos ensued.

Undeterred, Faramir fit another arrow to the string and released, to hit yet another man. The muscles in his chest and shoulder and his not yet fully healed rib protested under the strain of pulling the short-bow, but he did not care. He had yet to get used to the handling of the weapon, familiar as he was with shooting a longbow with a draw weight almost equalling that of his own body. Yet, he was pleased with the accuracy of his aim. Moreover, protected as he was by the steep rocky bank none of the soldiers would be able to scale in a hurry to get at him, and concealed by the low branches of a hard-leafed kermes-oak, he could loose all his arrows on the men without having to fear an attack. He had about a dozen left, sufficient to dispose of the lot, although hitting those on the further bank would constitute more of a challenge, since his own friends were standing in front of them.

Realising how the odds had suddenly turned in their favour, Khorazîr and his companions now launched an attack of their own, trying to prevent the soldiers from withdrawing behind cover. Not long, and the battle was over. Faramir had shot three more men, the others, in confusion and fear, had seemingly neglected their own defence, and had fallen to his friends’ sword and scimitars. Two managed to flee downriver, however. Khorazîr and Mezlâr set out in hot pursuit, soon vanishing from sight.

Seeing those remaining by the river relax and begin to search the bodies to make sure none of the soldiers posed a danger anymore, Faramir climbed down. As soon as the last enemy had been vanquished, the woman had sunk down beside the figure lying in the river, and had carefully turned it over. As he drew closer, he saw that she was rather small and robust in build, with curly dark hair straying from a simple braid. Her face he could not see at first, as she had bent her head over the figure on the ground, who now stirred slightly under her touch and soft, rapid words. As she took off the head-dress, he found his suspicion confirmed: the stricken man was Sakalthôr, and he looked badly wounded.

“That was a timely interference, Dúnadan!” Azrahil’s voice caused him to turn away from the couple and face the young man. He also had not remained unscathed. There was a cut along his jaw on the left side of his face, making him look like his beard was growing in a strange, lopsided fashion. His left arm he held pressed against his body as if it pained him. He was still out of breath from the fighting, and looked utterly weary but for the fell light in his eyes. “But for you, they would have caught us still.”

“You look like you have seen some rough times,” said Faramir gravely.

Azrahil nodded, sheathing his scimitar. “We almost didn’t make it. But the detailed account must wait. The short version is: aye, we’ve seen some heavy fighting at Sakalthôr’s place which of a sudden was swarming with soldiers, but managed to cut our way out. Then we tried to lead them astray, but were sore pressed all the time. We did not dare to come to the hiding-place immediately, yet knew we could not run for long because of dragging Sakalthôr’s family around with us.”

“You rescued the children as well?” asked Faramir. “Where are they?”

Azrahil nodded wearily, running his sleeve over his face, smearing the blood all over his features. “Hiding in the underbrush with their granny. We must fetch them later. I hope they just fell asleep and did not see all this carnage. They have seen enough of that as it were. And they were utterly spent this evening and weeping all the time, poor things.”

“Sakalthôr looks like he has been wounded,” Faramir said, indicating the former guardsman who was still being attended by his wife. “Badly, too.”

“Of our company, only Mezlâr has remained quite unscathed. Everybody else received some scratches and bruises at least,” said Azrahil darkly. “And we lost Murâd, already back at the house.”

Faramir cast down his eyes, grieved by these tidings, recalling the time he had spent with the young man on the corsair-ship, trying to distract him from his seasickness by talking about horses. “How?” he asked quietly.

Azrahil ran a hand through his tangled hair and sighed. “He was wounded in the fight, and by bad luck got taken prisoner.”

“Prisoner?” asked Faramir in alarm, since Murâd knew the location of their hideout. He trusted the young man not to betray his friends by relaying this information of his free will, but he also knew that the Snake had means to break the will of even the steadfastest of men.

As if reading his fears, Azrahil shook his head slightly, his expression hard. “He will not betray our whereabouts, Dúnadan, if that is what you fear,” he stated grimly, his words full of dreadful implication. “Khorazîr made sure he was spared a cruel death under torture.”

Faramir gazed at him, stricken.

“To be honest, I did not know he could be that ruthless,” Azrahil went on, more to himself. “True, in all likeliness Mûrad would not have made it anyway. He received quite a bad wound in the fight, and had they tortured him for information, he would not have lasted long. Khorazîr did the only possible, the only reasonable thing, as hard as it sounds. But it haunts him, naturally, even more than Mezlâr who threw the dagger. But what else could he have done?” He raised his eyes to meet Faramir’s, his expression full of emotional turmoil. Suddenly, he looked very young and confused and vulnerable, all his usual self-confidence and often somewhat harsh demeanour gone.

Faramir could not think of an appropriate answer, shocked and dismayed as he was himself by these tidings, and almost overwhelmed by sympathy for Khorazîr, who had been faced with a decision nobody should ever be forced to make. From the corner of his eye, he was aware of Dirar approaching the wounded Sakalthôr. “Azrahil, we need to look after the wounded,” he said, trying to distract himself as much as the other. “And then we need to clear this place, and hide the bodies, and all traces leading hither we can make out. ‘Tis not far anymore to the camp, just beyond that ridge, and soon the others should find us here. I came first because I was on picket-duty up on the hill.”

Azrahil nodded, with a visible effort pulling himself together. “Yes, yes of course. But I cannot go to Sakalthôr,” he added with a swift glance over his shoulder. “His wife will kill me. I don’t want to add to her dismay with my presence.”

“Why so?” asked Faramir, aware of his deeply troubled, guilty expression. “What happened, Azrahil?”

Azrahil hesitated, fiddling with the clasp of his belt. Faramir saw that his fingers were stained with blood and shaking slightly. “I blundered,” he at length admitted without returning Faramir’s gaze. “You know I did not trust him, believing he was leading us into a trap. That he was still working for the enemy. And when suddenly an entire company of horsed soldiers showed up at the house, I was convinced I had been right. I thought he had willingly betrayed us and sought our confidence, and I confronted him about it, just when he was in the process of getting his children out by the back door. It caused a delay, he was spotted and … Apparently he was truly only trying to save his family. But how should I have known? I was only thinking of our safety. He received a wound in the process, getting hit by an arrow. It didn’t look very serious at first, or else he did not reveal to us how serious it was. And since we didn’t get a chance to rest properly last night, constantly on the run as we were, and him all the time worrying about his wife and the little ones, it got worse. He didn’t have enough strength left for this last fight and received another injury when he did not manage to parry an attack.” His voice trailed out, and he let go of his belt and ran his sleeve over his face again, before hanging his shoulders dejectedly.

Thus he stood for a long moment, before slowly raising his eyes to Faramir’s. He gave the Gondorian a desperate, utterly miserable gaze. “If he dies, it’s my fault. I can’t go there now. I’ve caused them enough grief already. His wife is right in hating me. But … when you go there, will you tell them I’m sorry?”

“Azrahil, that is something you must do yourself, and you know it,” Faramir returned quietly. He had never seen Narejde’s son so distraught before, not even when questioning him about his sweetheart, and he reached out to squeeze his shoulder comfortingly.

Azrahil only gave a weary shrug. “I will check the fallen,” he muttered. “Perhaps some are only wounded.”

Gently but persistently, Faramir held on to his shoulder, preventing him from leaving. “Azrahil, I know you are utterly exhausted and moreover ridden by guilt, and this may be the hardest thing you have ever done in your life, but I think you should go there now.” He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and swallowed hard. From what he could see, Sakalthôr seemed to be fading swiftly. The brook’s clear silvery water was swirling darkly where he lay. Apparently his wounds were bleeding profusely. His wife had ceased her efforts to clean and bandage his wounds and was sitting now with his head in her lap, stroking his hair and talking quietly with Dirar, who gave a short nod and swiftly disappeared in the underbrush – to fetch the children, perhaps.

“Come, Azrahil,” said Faramir gently. For a moment the young man hesitated, before drawing a shaky breath. His formerly hunched shoulders tensing, he allowed the Gondorian to steer him towards the couple.

When they had drawn close enough to see his injuries, Faramir was glad to have forced Azrahil to accompany him. The former captain would not last much longer. Aside from other, smaller injuries, Sakalthôr appeared to have received a nasty stab through his hauberk under his left arm. By the large dark stain on his garments, the cloud of blood billowing in the water, and his shallow, laboured breathing it had pierced his lung. His face was deadly pale, and he was lying with his eyes closed.

The woman looked up at the sound of their footsteps. She had a full heart-shaped face, pretty but for the traces of grief and worry now written on her features, and for the scratches and bruises telling of the hardship of the past days. Her dark eyes were burning with emotion when they fell on Azrahil.

“Stay away from us!” she hissed fiercely, her voice hoarse. “You are no better than the rest of your cursed kin.”

Azrahil froze, then made a move to turn and leave. Faramir was about to step into his path to prevent him from leaving, when Sakalthôr opened his eyes. “Please let him come, Hanîje,” he whispered. “I need to talk to him.”

Instantly she turned to her husband, her fierce expression changing to a gentle and loving one as she stroked back his hair. Hesitantly, she nodded, but kept her eyes averted from Azrahil when reluctantly the young man knelt down at Sakalthôr’s side. Faramir remained standing. Hence, he could not hear the soft words the two men exchanged. He felt like an intruder on a very private meeting anyway. Grieved about Sakalthôr’s fate and that of his family, and deeply affected by Azrahil’s involvement in it, his heart was heavy with sadness and pity. He saw Azrahil nod and squeeze the other’s hand. Sakalthôr gave his wife an expectant, even imploring glance. Hanîje, with evident unwill, raised her eyes to Azrahil’s, her hurt and deep resentment plain on her features – which under normal circumstances, Faramir mused, must have born such strong resentment only rarely. She seemed a joyful, hearty person. But of course there was nothing joyful about her present plight. After long hesitation, finally, she gave a brief, curt nod as well. Azrahil relaxed visibly, bowing his head.

Sakalthôr’s body relaxed as well, and even before Hanîje’s shoulders started to shake and she bent her head over her husband’s, Faramir knew he had passed away. Quietly touching Azrahil’s shoulder, he signed to him to rise and follow, which the young man did absently, as if stunned. Faramir led him over pebbles and crushed weeds back to the water’s edge. Azrahil sank down on his knees again, stooping over the water and beginning to wash his face and hands before beginning to shake as well, burying his face in his fingers. Bereft of appropriate words, his throat too constricted to speak anyway, Faramir simply stood by, before a sound from out of the forest made him turn.

People were climbing down the high bank he had shot the arrows from. Narejde came foremost, with Nazîr and Turgon following. When she recognised her son next to Faramir, she sprang down the last feet and ran towards him. “Azrahil.” This one word betrayed her fear and worry more than any long speech. Her son hardly stirred at being addressed. Only when she had reached him, he slowly looked up, his expression full of misery.

“Are you wounded?” Narejde asked swiftly, stooping to look at him better. “Where is Khorazîr? Say not he has fallen! What happen here? What—” Her voice was cut short when her son slowly and with obvious effort stood, and without a word embraced her fiercely. For a moment she stood rooted in utter surprise, giving Faramir a helpless gaze over Azrahil’s shoulder. Then she relaxed, and slinging her arms round her son, she held him as he clung to her, obviously touched by his gesture and his display of emotion.

Again feeling like an intruder, Faramir withdrew to Turgon and Nazîr, who were standing a little forlornly in the midst of a clearing strewn with bodies, gazing from Narejde and Azrahil to Hanîje and her husband in dismay and confusion. “By the Valar, what happened here, captain?” asked Turgon. “It looks like a major battle has been fought. And I’ve never seen her son so distraught before.”

“These past days and especially this night has been too much for Azrahil,” Faramir explained sympathetically. “He has reached his breaking point, and I fear he is not the only one. You will understand when you learn of what has befallen them. But we must not tarry here, and therefore the tale must be postponed. We need to clear this place of the bodies, and hide the traces of the battle as best we can. Khorazîr’s company has seen some heavy fighting. I came just in time to help them. They managed to fetch Sakalthôr’s wife and family – Dirar is gone to bring them hither, I think – but we paid a high price. Murâd was killed yesterday, and Sakalthôr passed away only minutes ago.”

The two newcomers exchanged a troubled glance. “Where is my lord?” asked Nazîr.

“He went after some ... – ah, there he comes. And Mezlâr.” Faramir let out a breath of relief upon seeing the two approach, wading in the shallow water of the riverbed. Upon seeing Faramir and the others, they increased their pace. Both were out of breath when they reached the small group. Their garments were splattered with mud and blood, but most of the latter did not seem to be their own. Azrahil had been right: Mezlâr seemed fairly unscathed, whereas Khorazîr wore a bandage on his left arm and had received a cut or blow on his scalp, for a dark pattern of blood stood out in contrast on his forehead, pale in the faint light of moon and stars.

His expression was grim and stern, and Faramir thought he looked much older than when last he had seen him, only two days ago. When the Haradan’s eyes fell on Narejde who was still holding her son, whispering softly and soothingly to the young man, some of the tension seemed to leave him, and he stepped over to her. Narejde saw, and without letting go of Azrahil, extended a hand to her husband and pulled him close to her.

Faramir decided to give them some privacy. Mezlâr, Nazîr and Turgon had begun to search the fallen and take what weapons and pieces of armour as could be used still. They were careful to collect every arrow that had remained undamaged, since they did not have many of these. Apparently, the pursuers had all been slain, a fact which Faramir both rued and appreciated. Most had been young men, he realised as he walked over to the three men busy amongst the slain, and it seemed such a waste of life that they should have died for the cause of an evil master. He could not help musing about their families and sweethearts, who might not learn of their death for some time, and were being kept in perpetual worry – like himself, worried as he was about his beloved’s fate. Also, it would have been helpful had they captured one alive, to try and learn more about Al-Jahmîr’s precise commands and the deployment of his soldiers in the area. On the other hand, survivors would have meant prisoners, and prisoners was something his small company could not afford to keep at the moment. They were too few to guard them properly, and their provisions were already stretched amongst themselves, with no room to provide for more hungry mouths. And an escaped prisoner who might know and betray their current whereabouts was a liability they could not afford to embrace.

“Pile the bodies at the foot of the steep bank,” Faramir told the men when he reached them. “We do not have time to bury them properly, but we must hide them. Surely they will be searched for if they do not return, and your company will have left traces in the forest others could follow to this place.”

“We tried to leave as few as possible by walking in the riverbed for quite a stretch,” said Mezlâr, cleaning an arrow he had picked from the back of the man at his feet and handing it to Faramir, who returned it to his quiver.

“But the soldiers are bound to have left traces, trampling through the forest like a horde of cattle,” mused Turgon. “Nazîr and I are going to have a look round once we’re done with this lot, and see what we can do to make their tracks invisible. But how are we to hide them, captain?” he then inquired.

Faramir had already given some thought to the disposal of the bodies, and now told the men of his plan. “If we can uproot this small oak up there on the edge and pull it down, a considerable part of the wall should come down with it. The rock is rather soft and crumbly. The small landslide should bury the bodies enough to prevent wild animals digging for them, and others, too, perhaps. We can pile some more rocks and the remains of the half-decayed tree yonder on top of it.”

“What of him?” asked Turgon softly, nodding towards Sakalthôr. “I doubt his wife would want him buried with the rest. But we can’t take him with us, can we?”

“Nay, we cannot,” agreed Faramir, gazing at the grieving woman. “I shall talk to her.”

+

Hanîje did not look up when he approached. She still sat with her husband’s head in her lap, her own bowed over his face. As he looked down on her, memories of the dreadful night at Kadall flashed through Faramir’s mind. How easily could he have died there. Had it hit less than an inch to either side of where it struck, the second arrow would have pierced his lung, and he would have bled to death like the young captain. But he would not have passed away in his wife’s arms, for she had been taken by the Snake and carried away. Anger surged through him again. Another life taken, another family destroyed, and for what? One man’s craving for power and possession. Soon, two tired and frightened little children would arrive on this bloody scene, to bid their father farewell, most likely without fully understanding that they would never see him again.

He was startled out of his grim musings by Hanîje slowly lifting her head. There were still marks of tears on her face, but her weeping had stilled for now. Faramir was stricken by her expression, one of utter exhaustion, grief and despair. Nevertheless, he thought he detected a spark of fierce resolve in her dark eyes. Al-Jahmîr had made himself another enemy, he read there, an enemy who would not rest until this latest wrong had been avenged.

Kneeling down at Sakalthôr’s other side, he said quietly and sincerely, “I am very sorry for your loss, my lady. Your husband was a very brave man in defying his Master, and from what I learned during our short acquaintance he loved you and your children dearly. All he risked, he did so for your sake. I daresay you know who I am, therefore I fully understand if you partly blame me for what happened. I blame myself, and it grieves – and angers – me deeply that you and your family should have been drawn into this matter.”

Hanîje shook her head. “Indeed I know who you are, lord,” she said, her voice still hoarse, but set and strangely calm. Faramir assumed she was still under shock, but had mastered it. Swallowing hard, she went on. “And I do not blame you. Why indeed should I? You have been wronged as have we. What befell here was not your doing, but that of one man alone. And he will pay for it.”

The last sentence was spoken with so much fierce resolve, accompanied by a spark from her eyes that Faramir could not help but admire her. She would not be cowed or shattered by grief and fear, he knew. She would see this through, and help her children through this dark time as well. He felt his concern eased by her display of strength.

“He knew he would not return from this errand,” she went on softly, looking at her husband again and gently stroking his hand. “We spoke about it, before he took ship. He had already tried to quit his service and resign his commission, but Al-Jahmîr would not let him. He suspected him to work for his enemies, and oh, he was right! Sakalthôr knew he was being punished for his disobedience, on Tolfalas and later, and that the Snake wanted him dead. My mother had urged him many times to forgo his work for your people, out of fear for him and me and our children. But he was adamant, and I encouraged him despite the danger, and despite knowing how it troubled him to go against his oath. But, lord,” she said, gazing at Faramir again, “how can a decent man serve the Snake with a good conscience? How can he teach his children what it good and just and yet continue to do his evil work? Sakalthôr told me what he witnessed on the island, how you fared there. What he saw only strengthened his resolve to turn against his Master. He opposed him even then, without Al-Jahmîr knowing. He knew that you were hiding with that shepherd, and that you were ill, but he did not capture you, and ordered his men away, to search in other places.”

“I owe him my life, then,” said Faramir softly, his throat dry and tight. “And never had the opportunity to thank him.”

“But you did. You spared his life on the ship, and allowed him to come and rescue me and the children. Yesterday, he told me about what happened. We are the ones who owe you – you and Lord Khorazîr and his men. You sacrificed much to assist us, and but for you we would all be dead now. This young man, Murâd, he died for our sake.”

Again she dropped her gaze to look at Sakalthôr’s still and strangely peaceful face. “I could hardly believe my eyes when he stood in front of me yestereve. I had not reckoned with him returning from this ill-fated errand.” She bit her lip, drawing a shaky breath, her eyes filling with tears again as she looked at Faramir.

“A cruel fate, is it not, to have him returned to me only to then be taken forever. And what shall I tell the little ones?” she asked, her voice which had sounded so firm and steady before quivering. “I cannot let them see all this blood. How can I make them understand? How—”

Her voice faltered and she buried her face in her hands. Faramir reached out to gently pat her shoulder. “We can cover him with my burnous,” he said quietly. “I think you should let them say farewell to their father. They must have seen him getting wounded. Your eldest is five years old, is he not? He will understand, and I think in later years he will appreciate that he had the opportunity to take his leave, even though right now he might not.”

An image of a chamber lit by few candles came to his mind, and of a still figure lying in a bed, dark hair spread on the white pillows, and a face almost the same colour as the linen resting there, as if asleep. He had been about the same age as Sakalthôr’s son when in the middle of the night he and his brother had been roused to behold that scene, and he had never forgotten it to this day.

He shook himself slightly at this sad memory. “But Hanîje, we must hurry,” he went on, still speaking quietly and soothingly, but with a trace of urgency now. “We must not linger in this place, as it is too dangerous. Our camp is not far away, just beyond that ridge, and all of you are wounded and weary. I loathe to tear you from your husband’s side so abruptly, yet we cannot risk delaying much longer, and must find a place to bury him.”

She drew a shaky breath at his last words, clasping Sakalthôr’s hand firmly. Then visibly steeling herself, she gave a brief nod. “Will you help me carry him over to these trees?” she asked, nodding towards two gnarled oaks growing near the foot of the low cliff, but at some distance from where Mezlâr and the two others were busy piling stones and earth on the bodies of the fallen soldiers.

After they had moved the body over, Faramir and Hanîje used the dead men’s scimitars to cut a shallow depression into the earth, which fortunately was not as rocky as Faramir had feared. Then he spread his burnous on the ground, and they laid the captain’s body onto it, wrapping it round him to cover his injuries. Hanîje had not spoken another word during their grim task. Now she bent over her husband’s still face and kissed him softly, before straightening up to stand beside Faramir. The sound of splashing water made both of them turn. Khorazîr, Azrahil and Narejde had joined the others and were helping them in the burial, and Dirar was approaching wading downriver, with a smaller person carrying a child on her back following. Another child had been walking at the man’s hand, but upon seeing Hanîje, pulled itself free and began running towards her.
“Ammê,” it called, in a high clear voice that dealt Faramir a deep stab in his heart, so reminiscent it was of his sons’. Hanîje had begun to shake again, and with great effort was trying to pull herself together as slowly she walked towards her son. The two others also increased their pace. As they drew near, Faramir saw that the second person was a woman of about Khorazîr’s age, with grey hair tied up in a knot, and the same kind, heart-shaped face as Hanîje, although she, too, looked deeply troubled. Most likely the events of the past weeks had added lines to her features which had not been there before. On her back, the face half hidden by the hood of her grandmother’s burnous, she carried a small girl with a tousled head of dark curls. Her brother who by now had reached Hanîje and was being clasped in a tight hug, had the same dark curls and large dark eyes.

Gently, Hanîje’s mother now set her granddaughter to the ground. The little girl who reminded Faramir of Khorazîr’s granddaughter Hanneh, was obviously tired and grumbly, but soon joined her brother in their mother’s embrace. From overhearing Hanîje’s whispered words, Faramir learned that the children’s names were Gimil and Zîraphel.

Dirar swiftly withdrew to his lord and lady, most likely to report what had chanced while fetching the children. After reaching out to rub her daughter’s shoulder briefly and affectionately, the old woman stepped over to Faramir. Her gaze lingered on the figure of her son-in-law for a while, and the Gondorian saw how she fought for composure, running her hand over her eyes. Then, abruptly, she turned to Faramir, looking him up and down critically. At length she nodded to herself as if she had come to some judgement about his person.

“It will be hard on her,” she said suddenly. Faramir was not sure if she had addressed him, for she was looking at her daughter now who was still talking quietly to the children. “And on the little ones. Gimil asked almost daily about his attû and when he would return.”

“I hold myself partly responsible for his death,” admitted Faramir. “I encouraged him to oppose the Snake, despite the risk.”

The old woman shook her head. “You are not to blame, lord. He did the right thing. Even Hanîje encouraged him, in full knowledge of the danger. I was more careful at first, but after the past weeks, I knew no risk would be too great if by taking it the Snake could finally be destroyed. He has wrought so much evil here. I am glad you are not dead, lord, as the rumours said.” She gave him another long gaze, as if to reassure herself that indeed he was alive and not a ghost. Then she shook her head slightly.

“I never thought I would say this about a tark. You see, I lost my husband and my two sons in the War against your people. They left with the Black Ships and never returned. And now I lose my son-in-law to one of my own people, as I am ashamed to admit. Cursed be the Snake! I warned Hanîje when she got involved with him,” she went on, her sudden bout of anger fading into sadness, when again she gazed at her son-in-law.

“I told her no good came from getting too close to the Snake’s soldiers. To soldiers in general. Too often they perish on useless errands somewhere far from home, or if they return, they are strange and taciturn, because they had been commanded to do things against their conscience. But she would not be swayed. And he was a good man, as soon I learned, when I was ready to overcome my prejudice.”

“Yes, he was a good man,” Faramir agreed softly. “His foremost wish was to see his family safe, and yet he refused to act against his conscience.”

The old woman gave a sniff and nodded. “Noble, yes,” she said with some hardness. “And yet there is tears and sorrow now, and the Snake rejoices. Oh, if I knew a way, I would deal with him alright.”

“Al-Jahmîr will pay, eventually,” Faramir promised grimly, infected by her vengeful mood. “Yours is not the only family he has wronged.”

The old woman was about to reply when Hanîje and the children approached them. Sakalthôr’s wife looked grieved but composed. The little girl seemed to almost be asleep on her feet as she clutched her mother’s hand. But the boy freed himself of her grasp and cautiously went forward to the still figure lying wrapped in the burnous. Turning, he gave his mother a questioning glance, then continued forward until he was level with his father’s still but peaceful features. “Attû?” he asked softly, hesitantly reaching out to touch his cheek.

Faramir’s throat felt tight of a sudden. His eyes were beginning to sting. This scene was so like the one graven in his memory that he had to struggle to keep his emotions in check.

“Is he asleep?” Gimil asked now, gazing at his mother with wide dark eyes.

“No, mîk,” answered his grandmother instead, speaking gravely, because Hanîje was visibly fighting back a sob. “Your attû has gone where those who leave this earth go. You see, he was too tired for a normal sleep, and now he will not wake up again.”

Gimil looked at his father, then back at her, biting his lip, obviously trying to understand the implication of his granny’s words. “Is he where Nîlo went after he fell asleep?” he asked at length, with obvious hope in his voice.

“Yes, yes, mîk, there he is now. You see, he will not be lonely, but Nîlo will keep him company and lie on his lap and have his belly stroked, like he used to when he was still with us. And they will sit in the warm sun, your attû and Nîlo, and rest, and Nîlo will purr because he is so content.”

Gimil seemed relieved at these tidings. But then he frowned. “Can we not visit them, and sit in the sun? I want to see Nîlo again. And attû. He was so strange when he came back.”

His grandmother shook her head sadly, stepping forward to lay a hand on her grandson’s dark curls. “Nay, mîk, you cannot visit them. But one day, you will join them, but may this be long hence. You see, there is only one way to reach them, and one cannot turn back on this road. But they will wait for you. For now, say farewell to your attû, and you too, mîth.” She beckoned to the little girl, who only very reluctantly let go of her mother’s hand to join her brother. Their grandmother went over to them. Faramir was impressed by her composure and her way of handling the situation. Then a dark thought struck him. What would he do should things go awry? If he should return home without Éowyn, because she had perished in these southern lands? What would he tell his sons to try and make them understand that they mami would not return? And what would they be told, and by whom, if he perished as well?

Hanîje stood weeping softly, now that the children were not looking, after fighting hard to contain her tears in front of them. Behind her the rest of the company had assembled, all ready to leave. The light was growing already. Night was passing.

Furthest back stood Azrahil, his head bowed, and even at the distance Faramir thought he could discern remorse written on the young man’s features. The events of the past two days had affected him gravely. Faramir pitied him, but also saw the necessity to watch him closely. Emotionally unstable as he was now, Azrahil would have to be watched closely lest he engaged in some mischief which might endanger the entire company.

The old woman and the children had withdrawn from the grave. Faramir joined them, to give Hanîje a last moment alone with her husband.

“We shall see to filling the grave, captain,” said Turgon quietly, stepping over to him. “Nazîr and I will stay behind and hide those traces of the fight as we can. Aralas is up on the ridge, and Hâmadar is watching the camp and the river.”

“Thank you, Turgon,” replied Faramir. “Be careful. And report immediately should you detect enemies scouting the vicinity. Not long, I fear, and this company is going to be missed.”

“This may not be the right time, sir, but Nazîr and Aralas and I had this idea. Once Mablung and the lads arrive, we could do some real damage harrying these woods and hills. These soldiers are well-trained and equipped, but they are no match for us rangers when it comes to stealth and ambush. And Lord Khorazîr’s and the Lady’s men are sharp fellows, too. We could make them dread these forests like the Snake himself.”

Faramir gave him a brief appreciative smile. “’Tis a good idea, and I support it wholeheartedly. Keep it in mind for when reinforcements arrive. For now, we should see the newcomers to food and the treatment of their injuries. And to sleep, which hopefully will make them forget their sorrows for a while.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed 16 Jul , 2008 9:13 am 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
They set out in single file, with Narejde leading the way and Azrahil bringing up the rear. Faramir was relieved to see that despite grief and exhaustion, Hanîje and her mother were managing the climb rather well. When the slope got steeper and the forest less dense and tangled, Dirar offered to carry Gimil who soon fell asleep on his back – little Zîraphel having slept in her mother’s arms already at their departure.

For a while Faramir just walked behind them, ready to lend a hand should the climb become too difficult. Halting briefly to glance over his shoulder at Mezlâr and Azrahil who were following in his tracks, he saw that the latter was lagging behind, and moreover seemed all but heedful of his surroundings. Faramir did not blame him, yet if he was to function as a proper rearguard, he had to keep his senses alert to what was going on about him, instead of revelling in misery and remorse. Thus signing to Mezlâr to pass him by, he waited for the young man to catch up.

“Get yourself into camp, Azrahil,” he told Narejde’s son quietly. Azrahil hardly noticed him and almost walked past. He stopped when Faramir went on, but did not turn to look at him, “Try and rest, and have your injuries seen to. Torturing yourself with thoughts of what happened will not improve things. Besides, I think Pharzi will greatly appreciate your return. I shall take over the rearguard.”

At the mention of his lion, he finally raised his eyes to meet Faramir’s gaze. Despite the growing light, it was difficult to make out his expression, yet Faramir thought he detected a faint lightening of his spirits. He gave a brief nod, hesitated briefly as if debating whether to reply, but then continued the climb.

Faramir walked on more slowly, halting frequently to gaze about or listen – or to rest. During the battle and the events afterwards he had been too occupied to heed his weariness, which now, however, was catching up with all force. His right shoulder and the injured side of his chest ached from shooting the bow, the latter also stinging again every time he drew a deep breath. But since he was supposed to watch out for pursuit, and moreover hide the tracks of the company, climbing slowly with repeated halts was a necessity anyway. Soon, the others had moved out of sight.

When he had reached the last stage of the ascent, which constituted of a steep climb up a narrow gully grown with twisted pines, and strewn with pine-cones and loose rocks, the sky had lightened considerably. Not long, and the sun would be rising. Birds were chirping in the forest, and the last bats were flapping about, returning to the caves and cracks they spent the hours of daylight in.

Finally, he scaled the windy ridge, hot and tired and very thirsty, hoping that the water-skin was still where he had left it and contained some fluid. The rest of the company had already begun the descent, for there was no trace of them on the hill-top. Close to the ruined watchtower, however, he could descry two people, partly hidden from view by trees. When he drew closer, he recognised Aralas, and to his surprise Khorazîr, who now dismissed the ranger, for the Gondorian nodded and set out towards the path leading down to the camp. Wondering what might have made his friend stay behind and take over the watch, when he was wounded and exhausted, Faramir approached him slowly.

The Haradan was standing leaning against the gnarled, twisted stem and rutted, resinous bark of an old pine, his right hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. He was gazing north, towards the castle. Faramir turned briefly to behold the view as well. The orchards and lower walls were shrouded in fine mist, which soon the sun would dissolve. Already a faint red tinge was visible in the east. The wind was still blowing strongly from the sea, tying knots in Khorazîr’s long grey-streaked hair and making his black, green and silver garments twirl and flutter about his legs.

When he had drawn close enough to recognise his friend’s expression, Faramir thought he knew why Khorazîr had chosen to volunteer for picket-duty. Obviously, he wished to be alone for a spell, perhaps to reflect on the past days’ events. He was watching the Snake’s impressive abode with a grim expression, made even darker and more fell by the pattern of blood on his forehead which had been reshaped by sweat and the Haradan’s hand brushing it away. Faramir assumed the matter with Murâd was still haunting his friend, and he was touched by this realisation. Years ago, when they had still been enemies, Khorazîr conscience would most likely have remained less troubled by the young man’s death and its dreadful circumstance. The Southron had changed indeed since (and perhaps because of) their closer acquaintance. He was more like the person he, by all accounts, had been before his first wife had died and he had begun to pursue the man he had thought responsible for her demise with hatred. Faramir knew Khorazîr himself approved of the change, although, typical proud Southron, he would hardly admit this openly in case it could be construed as a weakness.

Looking at his expression now, however, Faramir detected little such sentiment there. It was stern and set, the dried blood on his skin and garments and even more the glint in his dark eyes making him look fell and dangerous. He must have been aware of Faramir’s approach, for he did not stir in surprise when the Dúnadan stepped next to him. He did not acknowledge his arrival with a gesture, either, causing Faramir to doubt briefly if his presence was welcome.

Suddenly, Khorazîr stirred, reaching up to brush a strand of hair out of his face. “I had forgotten that the castle is so close to the graveyard,” he said, speaking in a low voice as if to himself. “No further than a stone-throw away it seems, taunting us with its might and splendour and impregnable walls.”

“And yet even these walls can be brought down,” returned Faramir quietly. “Not by force, perhaps, and not quickly, either. But there is a way. And we shall find it.”

Khorazîr gave a slight shrug. Faramir saw how he winced at the gesture, and wondered if the visible injuries were his friend’s only ones. But Khorazîr’s expression when finally he turned to the Dúnadan only betrayed weariness and dejection, without any indication of him suffering from more serious wounds. “You have recovered some confidence, Dúnadan,” he stated.

“Some, aye,” replied Faramir. “Although recent events have not been very encouraging, the fact that most of you returned safely aside.”

Khorazîr clenched his jaw. “Most of us, yes. But not all. And the deaths of those who did not could have been avoided,” he said fiercely, pounding the bark with his fist in dismay.

“Azrahil told me about what happened at Sakalthôr’s house, but not everything. He is greatly upset about the captain’s death and his involvement in it. I have never seen him so distraught before.”

“He has good reason to be distraught,” Khorazîr returned mercilessly. “Some of what went wrong was his fault, because he would not listen, and did not stick to the plan.”

“I daresay his intentions were just,” Faramir defended the young man. “He did not trust Sakalthôr, and meant to protect the rest of the company.”

“Perhaps. But he was not in command, and distrust or no, he should not have acted against his expressed orders,” insisted Khorazîr angrily. Obviously, his fierce, hot temper had only partially been dulled by weariness and dejection, and was now being revived. “Everything was under control until he started to confront Sakalthôr about his true allegiance in front of a company of horsed soldiers. But for this stupidity and the delay it caused, we would have safely been on our way, and would have made it through with hardly any fighting. And without pursuit as well, most like. But because of his rash, thoughtless act we had to hack our way out. Almost all of us received injuries in the process, some, like Sakalthôr, serious ones. We almost did no make it, as we had to look after the women and children, too.”

He had spoken fiercely and agitatedly. Even though he had blamed Azrahil for much of what went wrong, Faramir knew this was not the real problem. “Azrahil knows he messed up badly, Khorazîr,” he said calmly, “and ‘tis troubling him greatly. He was overcome by remorse after witnessing Sakalthôr’s death. Do not be too harsh with him, even if you have just reason for critique. His own conscience his punishing him more severely right now than anything you could devise for his penance.”

Khorazîr gave a curt shake of his head. “I will not punish him,” he returned irritably. “Who am I to do so? He was not the only one who messed up.” Again he pounded the tree-stem, looking at the castle again. Faramir knew they were drawing close now to what was truly weighing on his friend’s heart.

“Do not take the blame for the outcome of this venture upon yourself, either, Khorazîr,” he counselled, gently but with emphasis. “You fared better than we feared – we greatly worried about you when you did not return yesterday. You managed to rescue the family and bring back most of the company. I know you are dismayed by Murâd’s —”

“Nay, you do not know, Dúnadan!” Khorazîr interrupted him angrily with a fierce shake of his head, turning to face him again, his eyes glinting with the same fell light Faramir had learned to dread more than a decade ago. “Have you ever been forced to order the death of one of your men? I sincerely doubt that.”

“According to Azrahil, he was badly wounded.”

“Ah, so it was alright to dispose of him, I reckon?”

“Khorazîr, you know I did not mean it that way.”

“What then did you mean?”

“You spared him a cruel death under torture.”

“Aye, how merciful of me – when maybe we could have tried to rescue him,” said Khorazîr sarcastically. “Shall I tell you what happened, Dúnadan? Do you really wish to know why I had to put this young man to death? In fact, I think you do know the reason, but you are too considerate to speak it in my face. Do you believe I cannot stomach honest criticism, or even accuse?” He gave Faramir a challenging look. The Dúnadan was about to reply, when Khorazîr’s mood changed again, and he went on, speaking more quietly but with no less emotion, “He was twenty-three years old, did you know? Had not even come of age! The same age as Imrazôr when he was slain, on yet another fill-fated mission,” he ended, regret and sadness having displaced the anger and self-reproach in his voice.

His face, however, set hard and stern as he spoke about his eldest son. Imrazôr had perished in the fall of the year the Dark Lord had been vanquished. Orcs had captured and killed him when he and his brother Aravôr had abducted Faramir to bring him to their father, who had still been the Dúnadan’s enemy then. Having successfully parted him from his company who had journeyed to the Harad on a mission to achieve peace in this war-ridden realm, the two young men, their company and their captive had been attacked by orcs before they had managed to deliver their prey. Faramir and Aravôr had managed to evade capture, but had not availed to free Imrazôr or the other men. Faramir knew Khorazîr still blamed himself for what happened, since he had sent his sons on this doomed errand, which had lost him the life of his elder son, and the loyalty (or so he thought) of his younger, who had returned from the errand changed, and ready to aid Faramir’s escape in return for the Dúnadan saving his life in the wilderness while being pursued by the orcs.

“It is grievous indeed that the young perish while we stay behind,” agreed Faramir quietly. “Yet Murâd knew what danger lay ahead, despite his youth. I do not believe you would have chosen him to accompany you as your guard had he not foreseen this, and been prepared to face hardship and peril, and the possibility of an untimely end.”

“Yes, he had sworn an oath to die for his lord and lady if required, but surely he had not reckoned to one day be killed by his own companions.”

“Khorazîr,” Faramir fell in, slightly raising his voice now, too, “you are being unjust to yourself. I do not envy you for the position you were in – alas no! In fact, I pity you.”

“I do not need your pity,” remarked Khorazîr coldly.

“If you go on like this, what you need is a good kick,” returned Faramir. “I have had men die under my command, during the War and later, when officially we had peace. Far too many, in fact. So I know exactly what it feels like having your conscience tell you it was your orders causing their death. Perhaps I did not give the direct command to end their lives, but there were occasions when what I did command them to do or let be amounted to the same result. If you will, you can blame the deaths of every ranger who fell at Kadall on me. Do not believe their deaths did not affect or even haunt me, or that Sakalthôr’s demise leaves me cold. And I mourn for Murâd. And regardless of you wanting my pity or not, you have it. No captain should ever be forced to decide what you had to. I was not there. I do not know the exact circumstances of Murâd’s wounding and capture. But I do know that you are a capable, responsible commander, and I shall always be ready to remind you of this should you choose to forget. Moreover I know you would not desert any of the men you are responsible for. How do you think the lad would have fared had they brought him before the Snake – had he lasted that long? Surely he would have tried not to reveal any information to the enemy. You yourself have been Marek’s prisoner. You know what he is capable of. Perhaps you have not experienced the full measure of his skill at inflicting pain and anguish – I hope you have not –, but I received a fair share. I would not wish what they did to me on my worst enemy, not even the Snake himself, and this means a lot. I think I can claim to have a fairly staunch will, and would not surrender to torture swiftly under normal circumstances. But Khorazîr, with this evil poison at work for a longer time – they could have asked me anything and I would have told them, just to end the pain. Now, you were in a position to spare Murâd this experience, and harrowing and grievous though it is, you know it was the only merciful thing to do. Had you allowed them to take him alive, not only the boy would have suffered far more than he did, but so would have the rest of us. They would have hunted us even more relentlessly, and found us. And afterwards, most likely your son and his family back at Khiblat Pharazôn would have been attacked as well, and perchance even my little boys back in Gondor would have been affected. As hard as it may sound, I think you did the right thing – if Murâd truly was beyond recovery or rescue.”

“We will never know this now, will we?” stated Khorazir darkly. He gave Faramir a long glance, apparently thinking about what his friend had just said. At length he drew a deep breath. “Today is Aravôr’s birthday, did you know?” he asked, the complete change of subject indicating to Faramir that some of his words, at least, had been taken to heart. The matter was not resolved for Khorazîr, and perhaps never would be, yet his friend seemed somewhat encouraged. Upon his question, Faramir shook his head.

Khorazîr sighed softly. “I am getting too old for this, Dúnadan,” he admitted quietly, once more gazing at the castle. The fierce anger and self-reproach having left his voice, he now sounded utterly weary. “I should be back home now, with my new wife who I have hardly seen nor spoken to ever since we were wed. I should be celebrating my son’s birthday with him and Melike and play with my granddaughter, instead of ruining the lives of promising young men and devastating happy families.”

“Instead of selflessly helping your friends?” Faramir asked shrewdly. “Instead of fighting an enemy who has ruined countless lives and devastated many families? He is only little younger than yourself, but his malice and cruelty seems unwearied. On the contrary, it waxes with every year. You will have plenty of time to celebrate your son’s birthdays and play with little Hanneh, and the siblings that will join her eventually. And as for Narejde, you should spend some time with her now, instead of giving in to dark thoughts and self-reproach where it is not due. She was greatly worried about your delay, ready to forgo all caution and storm off to rescue you. She would not quite admit it, but I think she missed you terribly. She is neither as indifferent to emotion nor as strong as she likes to make others believe. She needs you, as you need her. And I do not think she believes you too old,” he added with a faint smile.

Khorazîr gave him a frown, but Faramir thought he detected the hint of a smile behind the other’s stern mien. “What happened to you, Dúnadan? The day before yesterday there was you yelling at us to leave you in peace, yourself a complete wreck, and now you are trying to cheer up your companions, while you must be the most worried of us all.”

“We can all sit about and revel in misery,” replied Faramir. “There is plenty of reason for every one of us to spend the rest of the summer doing just that. But will that bring us any further in the matter of rescuing Éowyn and destroying the Snake? Nay! Therefore, we must try and make the best of our situation. Ere we set out from the site of battle, Turgon approached me with a good idea. Last night, I had already thought along similar lines as well. We need to turn more offensive. We can hide in these woods, but for how long ere they find and capture or kill us? Perhaps not in one stroke, but slowly, man by man? As soon as reinforcements arrive, we should begin to harry these lands of our own, to acquire provisions and information, and to make the Snake’s men (and himself) dread these hills and valleys. If they believe ‘tis my ghost haunting the land, fine. If his men refuse to set foot into the forests and glades because of an unseen danger claiming all who dare enter, all the better. We must stir up his people against him, who are still cowed by fear and terror. We must convince them that supporting Al-Jahmîr will lead to their destruction, and offer them an alternative to inspire hope of better times to come. So far, Marek seems to be having things under control – at least this is what he believes. If we can somehow shatter this conviction, if we can inspire his underlings to revolt, if we can keep him occupied and distracted so as perchance to slacken his hold on Éowyn …”

Watching Khorazîr closely while speaking, Faramir saw how his friend’s grim expression slowly changed. The matter with Murâd was not forgotten, yet the prospect of action, and moreover of annoying Al-Jahmîr had rekindled the Haradan’s fierce spirit. His eyes lit up. Faramir detected a spark of the fire that had once made him such a feared and formidable enemy, and knew that whatever reservations Khorazîr harboured about his age and his quality of leadership, they were forgotten for now.

“I want Marek to find no sleep at night,” Faramir went on, slightly surprised by the way his own spirits seem to rise. Again a side of his he was not very familiar with, a cruel, ruthless side was creeping from its dark hiding place, and he watched the advance with disquiet, even alarm, while at the same time feeling invigorated by it. “I want him to dread every shadow, distrust everybody about him. I want him to fear his bath, his clothes, his food and drink. And I want to avoid him being able to trace the source of his paranoia back to us, lest he can make Éowyn suffer for it.”

“How do you propose to achieve this?” inquired Khorazîr, watching his friend with interest as well as a hint of caution. Apparently he, too, was wary of this new, darker side of the Dúnadan.

“’Tis just an idea, and I have not had time to think it through properly,” answered Faramir, “but perhaps we should take a page out of his book.”

Khorazîr raised an eyebrow. “This a nasty read, Dúnadan, and a dangerous one, too,” he cautioned.

“I know. I do not like it, either. But it seems the only way to proceed if we want to truly shake him. Now, what if we reverse places? Instead of him hunting us, we will make him the prey.”

The Haradan was all interest now. “How?”

“We put a price on his head, so high that even assassins and bounty-hunters usually in his pay are tempted to switch sides and join the hunt.”

Khorazîr whistled softly. “A daring idea. Have you considered how to finance this, should someone come to actually claim his reward?”

“Well, there is Marek’s own treasury, for one. Should someone come for the reward, he is unlikely to be in need of it still, right? Also, I am sure King Elessar would support me, should my own means not suffice.”

Khorazîr looked doubtful. “I know Ithilien is a wealthy fief, but I do not think you can compete with the Snake when it comes to riches in gold.”

“Indeed I cannot,” replied Faramir. “Most of my princedom’s finances are bound up in restoration and repair-works, and I do not hold with pressing the population for more than is needed to keep the fief running. But we will find a way to out-bit Al-Jahmîr – and if I have to ask Falastur for a loan.”

“Alas, Dúnadan, I will put a debt on my own lands to help you out before you have to do that,” fell in Khorazîr. He gazed at the castle thoughtfully. “I like the idea,” he at length stated. “It is shrewed and wicked, and may actually work. There are many men in these lands who are not afraid of great Marek Al-Jahmîr, and who do not hate the tarks as much as to scorn their gold. As you said, they simply work for the highest bidder. And more than one of them will actually lick his fingers for a chance to get at the Snake, out of personal dislike or revenge, or simply for the fame and glory of the venture. Yes, I do like the idea. Only,” and he turned to Faramir again and looked at him gravely, “only the suggestion should not have come from you.”

Faramir gave him a questioning glance, then understood. He nodded slowly to himself. “I think I know what you mean. I am worried about it, too. I try to keep it in check. Yet it seems to be growing stronger all the time, working like poison. If Al-Jahmîr knew, most likely he would rejoice, and congratulate himself on corrupting the Steward of Gondor.” He sighed softly. “What if this changes me beyond recognition, Khorazîr? What if we manage to rescue Éowyn, and she discovers that the man she loves does not exist anymore. The Snake will have won then, regardless of what happens to his person.”

“Neither of you can expect to come out of this unchanged, Dúnadan,” said Khorazîr gravely, with a tinge of sadness. “She will be different, too, when she returns. I recall yourself stating just this, during our journey on the ship. At least, you admitted this to be one of your great fears. She will have changed, but not necessarily to the worse. And you will be different, too. You will have to pick up the pieces from there, and hope to put them together again. Personally, I am confident you will manage. You have been through so much already, both of you, and always found strength and support in the other. But only time will show.”

“Not a very encouraging prospect, is it?” said Faramir quietly.

Khorazîr shook his head. “Now, do not get started along those lines again, when only a short while ago you were the one trying to cheer up and encourage the rest of the company (including myself) when our spirits were low. I would rather have you patronise me than see you – how did you call it? Revel in misery?”

Faramir drew a deep breath. Khorazîr was right, of course. He lifted his gaze to look at the castle, the red walls of which would soon be set aglow by the first rays of the rising sun. A cloud of birds had risen from the orchards below and was swirling over the battlements in a complicated, ever changing pattern. “If only I knew how she fared after our meeting. And how she is now. We must find a way to communicate, safely and reliably. I cannot stop thinking about her and our baby, and what he might to do them.”

“We may learn more when Lôkhî returns,” stated Khorazîr encouragingly. “He has not come yet, has he?”

“Nay, he has not. We spent a harrowing day yesterday, waiting for tidings. The first we received were from Turgon and Nazîr who had stayed behind on the way to the new hideout in order to distract a company of soldiers – with great success, I daresay.” He gave Khorazîr a brief account of their adventure. The Haradan gave an appreciative whistle when Faramir described the confusion the two men had caused amongst the enemy’s forces.

“As soon as they may, they must go to Badra and report to this Rahmân,” said Faramir. “Hopefully, this will also provide them with an opportunity to gather information in the village. We need to know how many soldiers are stationed there, and what their exact orders are. Also, we need to find ways to procure more food. We are rather scarcely endowed with provision, for the men with the pack-horses have not arrived yet, either.”

“The men I sent for should be here in a few days, with your rangers, too. But feeding them is going to be a problem, although I daresay the population is going to help us if we pay them decently. According to what I heard, ever since his return Al-Jahmîr has made himself a bad name by raising taxes to hitherto unknown heights. This used to be a rich, prosperous realm, with good living for the people despite their questionable and often ruthless rulers. But now, to finance his lavish living expenses and his defences, Marek has increased taxation to painful levels. So far, people have been to frightened to speak up against it. But with the right motivation, and moreover the prospect of actually receiving good honest pay for their goods and labour instead of having to deliver them free of charge – it might actually stir them up against their lord.”

“This is exactly what I was speaking of earlier: if we can, we must undermine the Snake’s authority in these parts. Not by force where his people are concerned, but by cunning arguments – and the odd coin here and there. We must convince them they are better off with Al-Jahmîr gone, without directly putting them under Gondorian rule. We do not want to conquer them, we just want to help them get rid of an unjust, selfish ruler who continuously oppresses them.”

Khorazîr gave him a sideways glance, accompanied by a sly smile. “From personal experience I can say we have just the right man for this in our company. You seem to have a gift for making people defect, even against their will. First my son, who you beguiled and moved to work against his own father. Then my people, who cast me out of my fief (for a while). Afterwards, you made Narejde forgo her outlawish ways and work for you, and then caused Azrahil to seriously reconsider family-ties and old allegiances. And I could name a number of others whose heads and hearts to you turned. The only one your charm did not work on was the Snake himself.”

Faramir gave him a smile, while at the same time blushing slightly. Khorazîr had spoken lightly, as if in chest, but he had perceived the underlying commendation. “It did not work on him because I never wanted him to join our side. He can stay where he his, and good riddance,” he replied, causing Khorazîr to laugh.

“Well spoken, Dúnadan.”

“Thank you. And now, I shall patronise you some more and send you down into camp. You try to hide it, but ‘tis plain to see that your injuries pain you, and that you are leaning against this tree to keep yourself from swaying with weariness. Therefore, away with you, old man. Look after your wife, and have yourself looked after by her.”

Khorazîr gave him a look full of mock indignation. “For this alone wretched Al-Jahmîr deserves to be punished: giving a bloody tark reason and, worse, justification to order me about!”

Then giving Faramir a brief grin and a salute, he set out towards the downward path. The Dúnadan watched his descent until he was lost to view, before walking to the ruined watchtower in search of the water-skin, which thankfully was still half-full. One of the small lizards was sitting on it, darting away when Faramir retrieved it, to drink long and deeply. Then he settled on the stones, to watch the sunrise.

+

When, about an hour before noon, Hâmadar appeared to relieve him of picket-duty, Faramir was more than grateful. The water-skin was empty by then, and he was both ravenously hungry and dead tired. The last hour he had spent pacing the ridge to prevent himself from falling asleep on the warm rocks. Nothing untoward had passed on the castle’s walls and in the valley where they had fought the soldiers. Not long after sunrise, Turgon and Nazîr had come and reported briefly, and left again. They had hidden what traces leading to the site of mêlée they had been able to find, all the time watching out for pursuit. But the narrow valley had been quiet.

The road from Badra to the cross-roads had also been quiet and almost devoid of traffic. Faramir had observed some soldiers return to the shepherd on the southern slope beyond the river, most likely to check again if any of their enemies had contacted him, but they had not stayed long. Down in the village things appeared to proceed normally, with fishermen taking out to sea in the early hours, and returning with their haul later in the morning.

“How are things down in the camp?” he inquired of Hâmadar when the tall Southron joined him near the ruined cistern, where accidentally he had found a small opuntia and was carefully picking its yellow fruit, cautious not to touch the tufts of tiny spines on their skin because they broke easily, and would make his hands itch.

“Quiet,” Hâmadar replied in his habitual sparing way, taking two of the fruit with his hands wrapped in the tasselled end of his sash. “Most were sleeping still when I left.”

“Any news of the other parties? Lôkhî and those who went to town, or the men with the pack-horses?”

Hâmadar shook his head, his expression even sterner than usual. “Perhaps we will learn more from Nazîr and Turgon when they return.”

“They went to Badra?”

“Aye. They rested briefly, then set out again to find Rahmân who they were told to report to.” He frowned as he gazed into the direction of the village, then abruptly turned to Faramir again. “Get some rest, lord. I shall carry on here,” he said, and Faramir gladly accepted the dismissal.

+

The situation in camp was quite as the guard had described. The fire had been relit, and was now being tended (more or less) by Azrahil, who sat on one of the large stones surrounding it with his lioness at his feet, stroking her now and again but most of the time staring absently into the low flames. In case he was supposed to be watching the campsite he was doing a lousy job. He did not seem to take any notice of Faramir’s arrival, not stirring even when Pharzi raised her head from her paws and growled softly as a greeting. Faramir considered briefly rousing him out of his contemplations, which, judging from his grim, downcast expression were all but cheerful ones, but decided against it. He was too weary for engaging in a discussion with Narejde’s son, and yearned only for rest.

Near the entrance of the tomb a canopy of cloth – made of several cloaks and burnouses – had been spread between the trees, with blankets covering the hard floor underneath the shelter. Faramir surmised the interior of the tomb had been given to the small family, while this makeshift tent would serve for the others, as long as the weather remained dry. Upon approaching the fire, Faramir saw that there was a proper sentry after all: Dirar had chosen a spot of deep shade and stood leaning against a gravestone underneath the trees near the border of the cementary. He gave a brief nod as Faramir passed him by.

Not far from him, Khorazîr and Narejde were sitting on the low, crumbling ancient stonewall fencing in the graveyard, also in the shade of one of the cypresses, talking quietly with each other. Faramir could not see their expressions, but he noticed how Narejde was resting her head against her husband’s shoulder in a rare open display of affection, and he was holding her gently. He smiled slightly, touched by the image, and heartened as well. The couple at least seemed somewhat recovered in strength and confidence.

Not wanting to disturb them, Faramir withdrew under the canopy, where he sank down upon the blankets with a sigh. Someone had left a waterskin in a shady corner, which he took a draught from. Debating briefly whether to peel and eat some of the cactus-fruit he had picked, but feeling sleep beckon even more persistently than hunger, he put them aside in their wrapping. After shedding his boots, belt, sash and tunic, he spread out on a blanket, and almost immediately fell asleep.

+

His rest, troubled by dark, disturbing dreams which thankfully had faded from memory when he woke, was ended only a few hours later, making him feel like he had not slept at all. Judging from the direction of the shadows the trees cast on the canopy of cloth spread above him, it was early evening. Groggily, he sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking about to seek for the source of the noise that had roused him.

“Have you not caused us enough grief of late?” a woman’s voice was raised in anger. “Do you have to keep this creature about to endanger my children, too?”

“Your son is old enough to know not to go near her,” Azrahil’s voice replied, sounding defensive and weary at the same time – apparently their quarrel had been going for some time already, and he deemed himself on the losing side.

“I just watched her, ammê,” piped up Gimil. “I didn’t touch her. And she didn’t even growl. She looked nice. I don’t want her to go away.”

“She will have to go all the same,” his mother told him sternly. “A lion is no pet. She is dangerous and can harm you and Zîra.”

“But I like her,” argued Gimil with an insistence that reminded Faramir of Elboron, “and also she can protect us when the bad men come.”

“Bad men will not come here, mîk,” the boy’s grandmother fell in now. “Here, we are safe.”

There was a brief pause during which, Faramir was certain, glances were exchanged between the adults. Their current hideout was safer than other places, but it was not beyond detection, and offered little defence against a determined attack. And everybody knew that. Getting up and dressing quickly, he stepped out of the makeshift tent to where the small group was gathered near the fire: Azrahil, Hanîje, the grandmother and little Gimil, and Pharzi, obviously the reason for the discussion lying in the shadow of a tree near the wall of the cementary, her leash tied round the trunk. Near the entrance of the tomb which also was shaded by the dark cypresses, on a blanket spread on the ground he also spotted Gimil’s little sister Zîraphel who, seemingly unaffected by the commotion, was playing contently with a collection of cones, sticks and small pebbles.

For a moment he was struck by the strangeness of the situation: to an outsider, the camp must look like the abode of warlike outlaws: arms and armour piled near the entrance of the tomb (for they had taken whatever weapons and mail they had been able to carry from the slain soldiers to supplement their own supply), and most people bearing some bandage or other as an indication of fresh injuries. But at the same time there were children playing peacefully, as if there was no danger lurking beyond the green ridges to the north, where the Snake dwelled in his castle.

“As long as they do not tease or annoy the lion, Pharzi is not going to harm your son or your daughter,” Azrahil now said. He stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest, looking defensive and proud – more so, Faramir surmised, than he actually felt.

“Can you swear on that?” asked Hanîje coldly, her stance little less determined.

“It’s not up to me, is it?” replied Azrahil irritably. “It’s up to your children.”

“I should have expected a reply like this,” she returned scathingly. “Always keeping responsibility away from yourself, are you?”

Seeing that the conversation was on the verge of escalating, Faramir stepped forward. “Perhaps you should lower your voices a little,” he said calmly, “for otherwise there will be no need to keep this place secret.”

Both Azrahil’s and Hanîje’s agitation subsided visibly, both looking rather sheepish. “I could not help listening to your discussion,” went on Faramir, “and concede that both of you have a point. We cannot remove the lioness, for if we let her run wild, she might be detected and traced back to us, for I doubt we could part her from her master for long. Nor would it be a good idea to release her into the forest, which we must cross regularly ourselves. She is better off where we can watch her. And she may indeed come in handy should we be attacked. So your children must tread carefully around her as long as they stay here, before a safer place is found for them. And I think they can be trusted not to tease her. Is that not so, Gimil?”

The boy nodded fervently, obviously excited by the prospect that the lioness who he seemed thoroughly fascinated by might stay after all. “Go and look after your sister, mîk,” his grandmother told him quietly, and he bounded off obediently, but not without giving the lion another glowing look.

Hanîje was still gazing at Azrahil with an expression of deep resentment. The young man weathered her look for a while, obstinately, before casting down his eyes. “I’ll go and relieve Mezlâr down at the river,” he said. “Pharzi needs to drink, anyway. You can watch the camp, Dúnadan,” he ended with a glance at Faramir.

With that, he strode off to untie the lioness and soon the two had vanished from sight. Hanîje’s tense stance relaxed visibly, and she ran a hand over her face to brush away some stray strands of hair. Her mother gave her a sympathetic glance before settling down on one of the large stones round the fire. A cast-iron pot with what looked like stew was steaming there, the sight and smell of the food reminding Faramir how hungry he was. Unfortunately, the meal did not look quite ready for consumption yet. The old woman added some herbs and began to stir carefully with a wooden ladle.

Hanîje walked a few paces towards the border of the graveyard where she stood, her shoulders sagging slightly when apparently the tension faded, and grief, worry and weariness returned. She slung her arms round herself as if feeling cold, despite the air being warm even in the shady confines of the graveyard. After a moment, Faramir followed her. “Where are the others?” he asked as he halted beside her.

“Some have gone hunting, others are watching from the high place, and two have gone to Badra. And the lord and his lady went to check on some shepherd on the other side of the valley, to see if he can provide us with some of his flock.”

Faramir lifted his gaze to where the adjacent slopes of the valley were visible between the trees. “’Tis a dangerous venture,” he said softly, more to himself. “The shepherd is apparently being controlled regularly by the soldiers stationed in Badra. Did they disguise as the Snake’s men?”

She nodded. “Had I not known, I would not have recognised Lady Narejde,” she said with a trace of wonder and perhaps even admiration. “She did look like one of the men. No wonder the Snake hates and fears her so. Dreadful things used to happen to those who dared to even speak her name, when he learned of it. And after what befell, I wish I could take up arms like her and avenge my husband.”

Noticing the fell spark in her eyes, Faramir smiled faintly. “From what I saw last night, you did not handle a sword for the first time then.”

She shrugged, giving him a quick glance. “I had elder brothers.” Then her expression darkened. “All gone now, alas. They went to your country with the Black Ships and never returned.”

“So your mother told me.”

“My father perished, too, in the War. Suddenly, it was only mother and me and my sister who lives beyond Umbar now, married to a sea-faring tradesman. For many years mother held a deep grudge against your people. And now … suddenly you appear our friends, while one of our own is the enemy.” She turned to give him a long, searching glance. “Why, lord, has he wronged you so, you and everybody dear to you, or concerned with you? It cannot be still because of what befell more than ten years ago, can it? Al-Jahmîr never went to Gondor to fight with the rest of our men. The bloody coward stayed home and got rich from the spoils instead. And you do not strike me as someone who would have done him such harm as would justify so cruel a revenge.”

Faramir gave her a wry smile. “You should ask him just this, for I do not know the answer. One, reason, but not the only one, is that he desires my wife for his own.”

“She is very beautiful indeed,” she replied with a gentle smile. “I bet all women in Ihimbra castle are secretly jealous because of her golden hair. I have never seen the like before. And those whose interests extend beyond looks and fine clothes envy her for the renown she has won while fighting the Dark Lord’s fell servants.”

“You saw her?”

She nodded. “Once, while assisting my master the tailor. Many of the garments the Snake had ordered to be made for her need to be changed now, to accommodate the baby as well.” She looked at him with genuine pity. “It must be very hard for you, to be parted from her thus, always fearing for her and the little one. And I heard you have more children, away north.”

“Three little boys, younger than your own,” replied Faramir briefly, feeling a stab in his chest which had nothing to do with his injuries at the reminder of how deeply he missed his sons.

She cast a glance over her shoulder at her own children, who had joined her mother near the fire and were assisting her with the food – Gimil stirring the pot and Zîraphel with great care putting in more herbs her grandmother was handing her.

“How are they coping?” Faramir inquired gently, following her gaze. Hanîje shrugged, taking a deep breath. “Surprisingly well, so far. Gimil asked about his father repeatedly, but for the time being he seems content with what we tell him. He is grieved, and has wept quite long this morning …” She shrugged again, brushing at her hair again. “Zîraphel has calmed down now, too. She was very unhappy these past days because of all the commotion, and because she noticed how tense and afterwards grieved we others were. I do not think she understood completely what happened.”

He nodded, giving her a long glance. “And you?” he asked at length.

She gave him a brave but wavering smile. “Do not worry about me, lord – or us, for that matter. We will try our best to help you, and as long as we are occupied and have things to do, this will keep grief at bay. What good would it do either me or my children – or indeed Sakalthôr if I sat about weeping? He would not want me to, and it would neither feed nor tend your men or our children, nor forward your endeavour to win back your wife. As long as I keep busy, I can cope alright. And therefore I shall go now and cut some withies near the river. Zubejde suggested we make some baskets for gathering food and other things. Your camp is somewhat ill equipped with items of that kind.”

“Be careful not to get spotted from the road,” he cautioned. “And try and hide your traces in the high grass.”

“I shall.” Her brows knitted for an instant, and Faramir thought he knew what she was thinking. “You should inform the guard of what you are about to do,” he suggested. “Otherwise Azrahil might think you an enemy, if he only sees you from a distance.”

Her mouth tightened. “I had hoped to avoid him,” she said. Then turning to Faramir again, she gazed up at him with a grave expression. “You must think me very cruel and unjust, lord, for the way I react to him.”

He shook his head. “I do not, lady. From what I have learned of you so far, you strike me as all but cruel and unjust. But the past night, and days, weeks and even months before that you have been living under a shadow of dread and fear. I do not believe you truly hate Azrahil. Most likely you even understand why he acted the way he did. He is not like his half-uncle, despite bearing some of that family’s looks. He was almost overcome by remorse after your husband’s death. Sakalthôr asked you to forgive him, did he not?”

She nodded slightly, hanging her head and swallowing hard, obviously recalling the scene. “He did, and I will. Eventually. But right now it seems so much easier, and feels so much better to simply have somebody to blame and rage at.”

“I know exactly what you mean. But do have a care lest you drive Azrahil into some rashness all of us may regret later. He is very miserable at the moment, for various reasons, and I fear he might lose his head and dash off at some point, to try and set things right. For this reason and others, I can counsel you only as I have been advised: keep your rage for the one who truly earns it.”

She gave a brief nod, and drawing a deep breath, she finally set out. Watching her leave, Faramir could not help smiling slightly to himself, feeling an unexpected relief and calmness. She was right, the two women would cope – even after a few hours they seemed to have not only settled in but taken over the organisation of the camp, which he wholeheartedly approved of. At the same time he was surprised by the apparent calm of Sakalthôr’s wife. She had buried her grief deeply, keeping tight control of her feelings. For now this seemed a prudent course, as they needed a level-headed, active member of their company far more than a constantly troubled, mourning one. Yet he was also aware of the danger of denying one’s feelings so, and hoped that at least when she was alone or with her mother, without the children looking, the young woman would allow herself to mourn her husband properly.

Casting a glance to the fire, he found Zubejde watching him. Presently, the old woman signed for him to come over. “You can taste the stew, lord,” she said, handing him the ladle. “You do look rather hungry, if you excuse me saying so.”

He smiled, carefully taking a sip from the steaming broth. “So I am,” he admitted. “Although hungry is in fact too weak a description. This is very good.”

“Thank you. The children helped, of course,” she added with a loving glance at the two who beamed at her. “I daresay you need some decent cookery in order to be prepared to trouble the Snake. Lord Khorazîr’s wife does not strike me as the type of woman to spend much time behind a stove – or fire. Then again, she has other qualities, which may be needed more than good cookery for the time to come. And judging by your stores, she has not had much opportunity to cook, anyway.”

“We are short of provision indeed. Hopefully the hunters will have some success, and Khorazîr and Narejde, too, in acquiring a few sheep.”

“I thought of something else this morning,” said the old woman, taking back the ladle and passing it on to Gimil to stir some more. “Therefore I sent my daughter to fetch the withies. We are so close to the sea. When we have made the baskets, at night, we could go and gather mussels and limpets and other sea-creatures when the tide is low. They make good food, despite not keeping long in the heat, and are easy to find.”

“A good idea,” agreed Faramir. “There should be a beach or small bay where the stream the battle was fought at joins the sea. We would have to scout the area first, however, to make sure ‘tis safe, and also to find a way we can tread without leaving to many traces or be seen from either land or sea. When I am relieved of watch-duty later, I shall go and look for it.”

“I can watch,” fell in Gimil, drawing himself up a little. “I can also look for the beach and the mussels.”

“Hear hear,” said his grandmother, smiling.

“You can help me watch the camp,” said Faramir, smiling as well. “That is, if your granny can do the cooking without you.”

“Zîra can help you, can she not, mammê?”

“You go and watch the camp, mîk. And find some more cones for your sister to play with.”

Gimil nodded eagerly, leaving her side and coming over to Faramir, who he halted in front of, gazing up with large eyes. Tilting his head slightly, he studied the Dúnadan. “Your eyes look strange,” he stated after a moment’s scrutinising. “Are you an Elf?”

Faramir lowered himself so as not having to speak down to the boy. “Nay, Master Gimil, I am not an Elf. But I come from Gondor, a country far to the north, where people have lighter eyes and skin than people down here, because the sun does not shine quite as long and hotly.”

Gimil looked fascinated. “Is it cold there?” he asked, as Faramir straightened again and two of them walked to the low wall at the entrance of the graveyard.

“Yes, in winter. We sometimes have frost and snow.”

“I’d like to see this snow. Mammê says it’s white and cold, and goes away in the sun. We don’t have it here.”

“I am sure you will see it one day. When you are older, you can journey to my country.”

“Can Zîra and ammê and mammê come, too?”

Faramir smiled. “Of course.” Watching the boy, he saw his expression darken, and thought he knew what was passing through the little one’s mind. Presently, Gimil confirmed his assumption.

“Attû went to the north once,” he said quietly. “The bad man sent him there, and he stayed away and away, and ammê was sad. And when he came back, he was so strange.”

“I know,” said Faramir. “You see, the bad man sent your attû to watch me and prevent me from escaping, because he had captured me and put me in prison. But your attû did not like doing the bad man’s bidding, and he helped me. And he was very brave in doing so.”

Gimil gazed at him questioningly. “Why did the bad man put you in prison? He should be in prison!” he added with some vehemence, kicking the low wall so that bits of ancient masonry crumbled to the ground. “I saw him once. He looked stupid. And mammê says he’s not brave. He’s a coward, she said. And he hurts people,” he added more softly. Biting his lip, he gave Faramir a troubled glance. “He hurt attû?”

Faramir knelt down beside him, gently ruffling his hair. “Not he himself. He is a coward – your mammê is quite right there. But he sent other men to hurt those who fight him. And your attû did so. Because he was a good man, and could not stand that the bad men was ordering his soldiers to hurt people.”

Gimil screwed up his face even more. “Is it true that he will not come back? Mammê said he went where Nîlo is, and that they are sitting in the sun. But Nîlo was old when he fell asleep and didn’t wake up. And Mistress Basmah was old, too, and sick. But attû was not sick and old, and still he fell asleep and went away.” He bit his lip again, gazing at Faramir almost imploringly. “Can he not come back? Ammê misses him so. Can we not find him and tell him to come back?”

Swallowing slightly, Faramir shook his head. “No, Gimil, he cannot come back, although I am certain he would want to, to be reunited with your ammê and you and your sister. But, you see, sometimes people have to depart despite being neither sick nor old. Your attû fought the bad men’s soldiers to protect you and Zîra and your ammê, and he got hurt.”

“Badly?” asked Gimil very softly, and Faramir saw tears beginning to form in his eyes. The little boy’s grief touched him deeply, forcing him to contemplate what may lie in store for his own sons yet, should his errand go terribly awry, and either he or Éowyn (or both) not return to them. He drew Sakalthôr’s son close and nodded.

“Yes, Gimil,” he replied, his voice hoarse. “He was wounded, and we could not heal his injuries.”

“He had pain?” asked the boy. “Did he cry?”

“Nay, he did not cry. Your ammê was with him, and I do not think he felt much pain. He just grew more and more tired. He would have had more pain had he tried to stay. But like this, he went peacefully.”

Gimil sniffed, burying his face in Faramir’s tunic. Faramir held him gently, rubbing his shoulders. “I miss my attû,” he sobbed. “I want him to come back. And I want Nîlo to come back, too. And I want the stupid bad man to stop hurt people and go away.” He cried harder. “And I want to be back home and play with Aban and Fatin and Majîd.”

Hearing footsteps behind him, Faramir turned slightly to see Zubejde approaching, with little Zîraphel holding her hand. The old woman looked alarmed, but her expression softened when he shook his head slightly. “It will pass,” he said softly, and the grandmother nodded with an look of deep grief and pity.

“Gimil cry?” asked Zîraphel, stepping forward to touch her brother lightly. The boy stirred, looking at her anxious face. Sniffing several times and wiping his eyes, he composed himself.

“It’s alright, Zîra,” he told her, apparently a little embarrassed to find his younger sister witnessing his grief. “Come, let’s look for more cones for you, and then I must watch the camp.” Together, the children set out towards one of the trees, to search the ground for cypress-cones.

Their grandmother drew a deep breath, herself close to tears by her expression. Then with an effort she pulled herself together. “The stew is ready,” she muttered. “I will get you some.”

Faramir watched her walk back to the fire, his heart heavy from what had passed. The food when she brought it, however, soon lifted his spirits. Zubejde was a good cook, and had somehow managed to stretch the little meat they had had left to make a tasty broth, which moreover would last for the entire company. Gimil seemed somewhat cheered, too, when he returned, and began to question Faramir closely about Pharzi and lions in general, and if there were any up North. From there, their conversation swerved to other creatures, especially of the sea which Gimil was very knowledgeable of. He was just in the process of telling Faramir how he and his friends raced hermit crabs against each other, when the Dúnadan silenced him with a gesture.

“Someone is coming,” said Faramir. Gimil sprang up from his seat on the stonewall, looking about excitedly. “Is it an enemy? Must we fight now?”

Faramir smiled and shook his head. “It looks more like Mezlâr and your ammê. But perhaps they will have news for us.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed 03 Sep , 2008 9:29 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
It turned out that Mezlâr and Hanîje had little to tell, except about what they had been able to espy on the road. Another small company of soldiers had passed twice, coming from Badra and returning there not long after. Mezlâr reckoned they had only gone as far as the cross-roads, to there report to another troop.

Hanîje had arrived carrying a bundle of withies, which together with her mother she began to work into baskets, after having taken little Zîraphel into the tomb to sleep. Gimil had been allowed to stay up a little longer.

“They strayed left and right from the road, but only a little, always in view of their comrades,” Mezlâr stated contemptuously after he had helped himself to some stew and then joined Faramir and Gimil on the wall. “It almost looks like they are afraid of stepping farther into the forest.”

“Good,” replied Faramir simply. “We shall make them dread these woods even more in the days to come.”

Gimil looked up from where he had built a small straggly tower out of flat stones. “I’m not afraid of the woods,” he stated boldly. “Not even now when it’s getting dark.”

“Hear hear,” laughed Mezlâr. “I suppose you are not afraid of anything.”

Gimil was silent for a moment while carefully placing another stone on his tower, frowning with concentration. “I am afraid of something,” he said finally. Looking at the two men with a mysterious grin, he added, “but I won’t tell you.” The two exchanged a glance and grinned when the boy went on, reaching for another stone, “But it’s neither snakes nor spiders. Nor ghosts. Haha, you will never guess.”

To do him the favour, the men started guessing, coming up with the most unlikely ideas. But Gimil only shook his head and laughed. In the end Mezlâr hit the gold, by suggesting that perhaps the boy was afraid of thunderstorms.

Their little game was interrupted about an hour after sundown when Gimil was fetched and put to bed, under great protest. Shortly afterwards Hâmadar, who had been relieved of watch-duty by Dirar, returned to the camp in the company of Aralas. The ranger had been hunting with Dirar, proudly delivering four rabbits and a small deer.

“Hope the ladies are going to find a way to make the meat last in the heat,” said Aralas thoughtfully as he sat down to eat.

“It should keep a while in the tomb,” mused Faramir. “’Tis surprisingly cool in there, despite it not reaching that far underground.” As he spoke, he recalled that he had wanted to explore the tomb ever since their arrival, to learn more about its history. But there had been no opportunity as yet.

When asked if they had encountered any enemies, Aralas shook his head. “The forest was quiet, without any of the Snake’s underlings creeping about. We even returned to the valley to check if the graves had been disturbed,” he said quietly, after making sure the women were out of earshot. “But there was nobody there, and everything like we left it. Perhaps they don’t miss their comrades yet, up at the castle. But if they do, we’ll know, and we will be prepared. Turgon told me this morning, before they set out for Badra, that he and Nazîr left some nasty little surprises down there. We checked them. Very ingenious little traps they are.”

They had only just begun to discuss these traps when even more food arrived, brought by Khorazîr and Narejde. Both were still clad as soldiers, with only the swiftly rendered password preventing them from getting shot by Aralas. Khorazîr was carrying a dead sheep over his shoulders, the head and innards of which had been left with the lion down at the river. Both were weary, having been forced to proceed slowly and cautiously and hide often. Nevertheless they were greatly cheered and encouraged by their success with the shepherd.

“He was reluctant at first to cooperate,” said Khorazîr when he and his wife joined Mezlâr, Aralas and Faramir, with a bowl of stew each, “complaining surprisingly loudly and vehemently about the constant visits by the soldiers.”

“Yes, he assured us three times at least he had not seen any of ‘those people’,” added Narejde, “and it was my impression that he secretly wished to see us, only to make sure we were out there and real, not just some rumour to scare people. There appear to be some wild stories making the round in Badra concerning us – you in particular, Dúnadan. They must have spread there from Ihimbra. At this speed, they will reach Umbar tomorrow. Lôkhî’s doing, I’ll wager.”

“You did not reveal your true identity, did you?” asked Aralas in surprise, gazing at the couple in their livery.

Khorazîr snorted. “Of course not. We played along. But it was very enlightening to listen to what he had to tell.”

“So he is no friend of the Snake’s?” inquired Faramir.

“Nay,” answered Khorazîr, “although he was careful not to display his dislike too openly – we posed as soldiers, after all. Apparently he had had to render some of his flock for free, first to fill Marek’s tables – or that of folks up at the castle, at least –, and later the bellies of his soldiers. He grew easier and much more friendly when it transpired we were willing to pay for the beasts we wanted to take.”

“Do you think he grew suspicious?” asked Faramir, tensing briefly at some sound out of the dark forest, out of tune with the by now familiar nightly woodland noises. The others noticed, with Aralas even reaching for his bow again, but when after a moment’s intent listening no strange sounds followed, they relaxed and resumed the conversation – except for Mezlâr, who rose and casually strolled towards the fire as if to look after it; Faramir was certain he was going to investigate the sound.

Khorazîr shrugged. “He is a sharp fellow, no doubt. But even if we struck him as somewhat odd compared to the other soldiers, I do not believe he is the kind of man to go and blab about it. He appears to value his solitude, and wants to be left in peace. We should not accost him too often, but if we have desperate need of provision, he will help us out.”

“As long as we can pay,” put in Narejde dryly.

“Perhaps we should discuss our financial situation at this point,” suggested Faramir, as this was matter weighing on his mind, not just since the idea of luring bounty-hunters into considering Al-Jahmîr a profitable prey had come up. “So far, you have covered all expenses, even the journey to Gondor – and despite you claiming that Azrubâr owed you a favour, I strongly suspect this has been all but cheap. I very much hope you will keep a tally of what I owe you—”

“You owe me nothing, Dúnadan, and this is the end of the discussion,” interrupted Khorazîr, almost curtly, leaving Faramir under the impression he had insulted his friend. Nevertheless, he felt the need to clear up the matter.

“Still—”, he began, to be interrupted once more.

“Leave it, I said. You need not worry about our finances. I have enough with me to keep us fed, with some spare to bribe folks to help us out who may be reluctant without this special … persuasion. I will hear no word of recompense from your side. Firstly, I consider it money well spent – there is no squandering wealth if the Snake can be inconvenienced by doing so. Secondly, should I desire to, I shall fetch it back, rest assured.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow. “Where from? Marek’s own treasury?”

Khorazîr’s teeth glinted in the dark as he smiled. “The very. I like your idea of financing our little expedition here with gold he amassed over the years.”

“That is all very well,” fell in Narejde, “but before we gain access to his treasury, we need to get into the castle. We cannot hide here forever, despite things having improved since we arrived at this place. Yes, we need to fortify our hideout as best we can, and gather more information, and stay out of reach of the Snake’s men while doing as much damage as we can.”

“Not to mention finding enough food,” added Aralas in a low voice.

“I agree with Narejde,” said Faramir. “Our greatest and most pressing task must be to get into the castle and rescue Éowyn. The longer we delay, the more difficult it will get due to the progression of her pregnancy. You said you knew ways into the castle, Narejde?” he addressed her.

“I do,” she replied, frowning as if the reminder troubled her. “Getting in should not pose a problem. Getting out again, this is where the danger and difficulties lie. I do know some routes for that, too. Some need to be checked if they are still open, however. The problem is they are dangerous routes, and require strength, endurance and a good constitution – and luck. No escape-routes for a pregnant woman. Meaning we could use these ways to get into the castle, and perhaps get out again, but not with her in tow. Getting out again, together with her and the child, this is where lies the greatest difficulty. She will be closely watched, as if her pregnancy was not enough of a difficulty. Still, there must be alternatives to the most direct (and perilous) routes, and ways to get rid of her guards. To find out about these, we need somebody inside the castle. Lôkhî would be an ideal candidate, since he can act and disguise himself so very convincingly.”

“And he can sneak up on chatting, inattentive watchmen,” came a familiar voice from somewhere in the underbrush a little distance from the wall, sounding very smug – immediately followed by a faint curse and a laugh from Mezlâr.

“And who is the inattentive one, friend Lôkhî?” he asked chestfully as both men rose from the bushes, Mezlâr gripping Lôkhî by the back of his burnous.

“I should have known you weren’t just following nature’s call when you disappeared into the forest,” said Lôkhî indignantly as they approached the others, shaking himself loose from Mezlâr’s grip. He was dressed like a merchant, giving a fairly modest and respectable impression, and despite looking weary his expression did not indicate that disaster had befallen him. There was no trace of the men that had gone to Ihimbra with him, however.

“Well now, seems I arrived at the right time. Do I smell stew?”

+

The return of Lôkhî was met with great relief, even joy. He was instantly provided with food and drink and a seat near the low-burning fire, received a (not very serious) reprimand from his lord for endangering himself by trying to outwit the watchmen, before being riddled by questions.

“This is what I call a stew. My commendations to the cook,” he said, waving his spoon in the direction of the tomb whither the women had withdrawn. “My report will follow in a moment, but you will get the short version only. In fact, I only came to fetch some of you to accompany me to the coast and help me carry a few things back to this camp which may be of use here. Our two piratish friends and I commandeered a small ship in Ihimbra and journeyed here by sea, after all the roads had been blocked by Marek’s overzealous soldiers. They’re waiting in a cosy little cove beyond that ridge where Dirar is keeping watch – he spotted me right away, lord, the sharp lad. You should promote him.”

“Careful, friend,” warned Mezlâr. “We heard you, too, when you settled down in your bush. We just thought we should leave you to your little prank, since we know how much you enjoy them.”

Lôkhî snorted and threw a cypress-cone at him. “Anyway,” he went on, “we should get moving soon. I need at least two, three would be better. How many guards have to stay round here?”

“One down at the river,” replied Khorazîr. “In fact, Azrahil must be relieved there soon. One, or better two to guard the camp. Hâmadar and Aralas have been up for a long time and should rest, and Azrahil should try and get some sleep, too, despite claiming he cannot.”

“I can take over Azrahil’s watch,” volunteered Mezlâr.

“And I will watch the camp,” came a quiet voice from the direction of the tomb. Hanîje stepped forth, drawing a blanket round her shoulders. “I cannot sleep anyway.” She gave the others a firm, almost challenging glance, apparently expecting some discussion. But Khorazîr only thanked her courteously, as her offer would enable him, Narejde and Faramir to accompany Lôkhî.

+

They set out shortly afterwards, at first following the trail up to the ruined watchtower where Dirar was on duty. During the climb, they first gave Lôkhî a brief account of what had befallen their part of the company, all the time waiting eagerly and not without anxiety for what he had to tell. Lôkhî was excited about the successful encounters with the Snake’s soldiers, but greatly saddened by the deaths of Murâd and Sakalthôr.

“Unfortunately, I have grievous tidings as well,” he said with a grim expression after they had briefly talked with Dirar, who reported that nothing untoward had befallen during his watch, and they walked on along the ridge, the castle with its fire-lit walls to their right. Despite the late hour, many windows were still illuminated. Faramir wondered which one might be Éowyn’s.

“It seems Îbal and Meshîd ran into a patrol and were killed – or worse: Meshîd was killed, and Îbal taken prisoner and brought into the castle. I doubt we will see him again,” Lôkhî continued quietly.

The other’s exchanged shocked glances. Khorazîr let out a curse under his breath. The little Faramir could see of his expression in the darkness betrayed his deep affection. Obviously, he was thinking of Murâd again.

“Îbal is a brave lad and strong-willed,” Narejde said, her voice hoarse despite her trying to make it sound strong and confident. “He will not betray us, not even under torture.”

Lôkhî only gave a slight shrug and a sigh. “Guess we’ll see soon,” he muttered, and all four fell silent for a while, each lost in contemplation. Îbal had not known the exact location of their new hide-out, but he had been informed it was close to Badra. Would he truly withstand torture and not betray their whereabouts? Better not count on it, decided Faramir darkly, feeling a cold creep over his skin that had nothing to do with the strong westerly wind blowing over the ridge. Only too well he remembered what Al-Jahmîr had subjected him to on Tolfalas – and he had not even been tortured for information then. Just tormented for the sake of it, he thought with a baleful glance at the castle.

+

Upon reaching a group of gnarled, wind-shaped pines Lôkhî halted, looking about, and causing a welcome break in their gloomy thoughts. “I hope I remember this correctly, but I think we need to climb down here. The first bit is rather steep and there’s a lot of loose rock, but further down there’s the remains of a path, and even steps hewn into the rock. Apparently there was a way leading up from the bay, and the upper parts have been damaged, buried by a rock-slide. Be careful where you put your feet, especially now in the dark. The footing can be treacherous.”

Again silence fell as one by one they began the ascent. The climb proved tricky indeed, and more than once smaller rocks slid from under their boots and clattered down the steep slope, to come to rest in thickets of gorse and small wizened trees. But soon, as Lôkhî had predicted, the uneven ground gave way to a narrow path, and short flights of crumbling steps, cracked by age and the roots of trees.

On a small landing they halted and recovered their breath, and Faramir finally broke the silence. “What else befell you, Lôkhî?” he asked.

The small man drew a breath. “Well, thankfully those were the worst of my tidings. The rest is much better. In fact, what I’ll tell you now should cheer you up.

“You may remember I went to Ihimbra with Rabô and Numaïr, and the two corsairs. Well, the former two are still there, in as good a hiding-place with excellent opportunities for gathering information as one could possibly hope for under the circumstances. Many of the Snake’s servants and soldiers alight there regularly, as well as folks from abroad. Ah, don’t look so alarmed. Yes, it’s dangerous, but truth is there are no secure places for us. And the number of soldiers doesn’t bother us. Since the place is so crowded with these brave lads, it’s the one they’d look for us last. The corsairs knew it and showed us – it’s a kind of inn, among other things. The innkeeper was looking for some strong lads round the place willing to do odd jobs for little payment, no questions asked. So there come we – and it proves we turn out just what he needed.”

“Is he to be trusted?” asked Faramir after exchanging an alarmed glance with Khorazîr and Narejde who by their expressions did not quite share Lôkhî’s opinion that the hide-out was truly safe for their people. “He must have given thought to who you are and where you come from, and why you show up in a time like this. And if he is not a complete fool, he will put two and two together.”

“Of course he can’t be trusted,” replied the small man cheerfully. “He’d relay information to Marek’s soldiers as willingly as to the tarks, as long as there’s enough profit for him. And he’s not stupid. A little simple, perhaps, but not stupid. But we accounted for his calculating skills and gave him a good background-story. For now, he thinks we’re pirates, who he does rather sympathise with, and we’d like to keep him thinking along those lines. We managed to sell him some of the uniforms we got from the sea-battle, and now he’s looking forward to more of the stuff.” Lôkhî shook his head, grinning. “Didn’t even mind the blood-stains, he did.”

“Would he not deliver them up to the castle?” inquired Faramir. “Surely Al-Jahmîr offers rewards for any information about the battle and those involved in it, especially now that this Yôpharaz has returned.”

“Oh yes, he does. Actually, I think friend innkeeper did try to sell them – not to Marek himself but someone who knows people as know people. If you catch my meaning. Sooner or later, the stuff will end up in the castle, I’m sure. And good riddance. We can’t lug everything about with us, and we got a bit of gold we then were able to invest in acquiring more useful items, and information. And by selling the stuff through people who know people, nobody will remember us, and tracking things back to us is going to be difficult.

“So aye, some folks do that kind of business with the castle. But as many, if not more consider these rewards far too low as to trouble themselves with legging it up to Marek himself or have a chat with the soldiers, fearing they’d be not rewarded but punished if their information wasn’t what lordship wanted to hear. There’s plenty of rumours of folks disappearing into the dungeons and elsewhere, and not returning. There’s a strict curfew – well, Marek wants it to be strict, but fortunately his lads don’t take their master’s wishes too seriously when those collide with their own opportunity to have a bit of fun in the evenings.

“But there have been raids into houses. People have been roughly questioned and some where taken up into the castle. Especially in the harbour-district, where the soldiers tried to find an old crone and her slow-witted grandson.” He gave Faramir a wink and a grin.

“The population does not endure this treatment without complaints, certainly,” fell in Khorazîr. “They are proud and independent, even soft coast-folks down here. Or are they too cowed by the soldiers to show resistance?”

“The city is in uproar, lord, and much divided in opinion right now,” replied Lôkhî. “Many are unhappy about the strict regulations which interfere with their daily business, that is true. Also, taxes have been rising constantly ever since Marek’s return, as have people’s work-duties for their lord. So they don’t like that. Who would? Also, many are afraid of what’s going to happen once Gondor arrives in full force to take revenge. Some hope Umbar will come to their aid, but the more intelligent remember that Umbar is in Gondorian hands, more or less. There are people, of course, who still support their lord and master wholeheartedly, and fully approve of and even cheer his actions – like capturing your lady in front of your very nose. Those look forward to Marek giving the tarks a good kick when they arrive, and a hard time later on to humiliate them further. Others again have suffered before at the hands of the Snake, and they, even though they hardly show their opinion openly as it’s become too dangerous, support our cause.

“Several fascinating tales are making the round now concerning your miraculous return from the Dead, Lord Steward. I was looking forward to starting one with my account of what happened in the orchard, Marek’s great blunder, but you know what? When we arrived and had established ourselves, and began listening round for informative rumours, there’s my tale, being told by a half-drunk trader in a tavern, to a large and very attentive audience. And what an excellent tale it was. Had grown, of course, and had been embellished here and there, ah, but he got plenty of cheers, and plenty of drink for his efforts. Guess some of the guards must have blabbed, and then some clever folks put two and two together. When I had the opportunity, I threw in the bit with the lock of hair, and steered the tale in the right direction when there was danger of it diverging too far from the truth. I tell you, that one bought us several drinks that first night. And the day after, it had grown even more in that miraculous way tales tend to. By then, you had shaken hands with Al-Jahmîr and not worn any disguise, and still he hadn’t recognised you. Jokes about Marek’s apparent poor perception and recognition of people’s features are in fashion right now. Don’t quite recall them now word for word, but there was a good one about him alarming his guards because there was a dangerous stranger is his chambers, and when the lads arrive it turns out Marek’s been seeing his reflection in a mirror. That one got Ilkay laughing so much he almost choked on his ale. Last night there even was an impromptu theatre-play in one of the tavern where our little encounter got re-enacted in a very entertaining way. We definitely scored a point there, and it’s something we should build on.

“On a more serious but not less positive note, we – our cause, I mean, as well as you in person, Dúnadan – gained many sympathies. Not just by ridiculing Al-Jahmîr, but also by our obvious courage and persistence, and cleverness at evading his forces again and again. Even though the folks here are soft and gutless in comparison to our people at Khiblat Pharazôn, they do know when they witness formidable bravery. Many have heard about what happened at Tolfalas (some even versions close to the truth), so they know that you and Marek go back a long and hard way, and they recall how often he tried to kill you before and failed. You have quite a number of admirers now, Dúnadan (and not just amongst the ladies). Quite a feat, considering that not long ago some of them would rather have hanged themselves than admitting there was any good to be found in a tark.

“Especially those hating the Snake but fearing his wrath seem to take heart in our example. Tales of you having returned from the dead to haunt and punish the Snake are going about in town – in fact, there are similar rumours about you, my lord, lady,” he said with a nod to the couple. “It’s said that you have gathered an army of fierce ghosts about yourselves to come upon Marek and his supporters with your wrath, like those dreadful wraiths who chased the Umbarians from their ships back in the War. Those who don’t believe in ghosts but know a little about the history of the Steward’s and your encounters with Marek marvel at the fact that he seemed to have survived yet another attempt at ending his life. They say your life is charmed, and that you are destined to destroy the Snake once and for all.”

Khorazîr gave a soft laugh. “You are becoming famous, Dúnadan. Hopefully this does not rise to your head like a strong wine.”

“Not with you constantly reminding me of my rightful place, Khorazîr,” returned Faramir, laughing as well. He felt flattered and irritated at the same time by the developments Lôkhî was describing, secretly hoping that the population of Ihimbra would not be vesting expectations too high in his person and abilities, but also touched by their support.

“What else did you learn?” inquired Narejde, who, too, had briefly smiled at the remark, but had soon regained her stern, thoughtful mien. “And why did you arrive by ship? How did you come by it – ‘commandeer’ is a term that can be stretched in various directions.”

“Well,” said Lôkhî with a mysterious and definitely self-pleased smile, “the best I have saved for last. The reasons for acquiring – another term to be stretched, eh? – the vessel were several. Firstly, we had to find a way to transport some stuff here quickly and without creating too much fuss here or on the roads. Secondly, the roads are watched, and some are even blockaded by sharp patrols. Don’t think we would have gotten through there without being thoroughly searched and questioned.”

“But the sea is being patrolled as well,” fell in Faramir. “Whenever we watched from the high place, we could, even over the distance, descry several of the Snake’s warships out at sea, as well as smaller craft, frigates and the like, which seemed well suited to keep close to the coast and search the bays and small fishing villages.”

“You’re right there, lord, the sea is being watched as well,” replied Lôkhî with a smile. “But we outwitted them. And outsailed, them, too, I daresay. Those pirates do know how to handle a ship even in dangerous waters – waters none of Marek’s captains dare sail into lest they get wrecked on the cliffs. Also, we made sure to travel by night only, and without lights to give away our position. After we’ve unloaded the ship, we’re going to have to hide it so it won’t be spotted, until tomorrow night, when they are going to set out again to find Azrubâr.”

“What is this ‘stuff’ you mentioned?” asked Khorazîr. “More provisions, especially some that will keep in the heat, I hope.”

“Aye, we have some of that, as well as other things needed for camping out in the forest,” replied Lôkhî. “But most of our ‘haul’ consists of things we’ll need to get into the castle.”

The other three exchanged a surprised glance. The small man had sounded like he already had a set plan of how to contrive this. Apparently he noticed their confusion, because he halted and grinned up at them.

“Oh, I think I forgot to mention: there may be an opportunity to not only get into the castle proper, but also to get at the Lady – or at least find out more about her present state and whereabouts.”

“How?” the three others inquired with almost one voice.

Lôkhî’s grin broadened, and it was plain to see he wished to tell the tale at his own pace. Turning, he leaped over a tree-root twisting between two steps and continued downward at almost dangerous speed in the darkness. The bay he had mentioned was visible now between the sparse trees because the sea was glinting dully in the light of the stars (the moon having disappeared behind some clouds), and the surf could already be heard, but there was no trace of the ship. Faramir surmised it had been dragged some way into the small stream to hide it underneath the dense tress that grew along its banks almost until it reached the sea. The ground became less rocky and more grown with shrubs, herbs and hardy grasses, and the steep descent lessened. He, Narejde and Khorazîr increased their pace to keep up with Lôkhî who was almost skipping along the winding path now, obviously in excellent spirits.

“Will you tell us now or what?” asked Khorazîr impatiently. “Or do I have to command you first?”

“Alright, alright, I’ll tell,” replied Lôkhî, walking more slowly now. “Where to begin …”

Khorazîr cleared his throat meaningfully. Lôkhî waved a hand, grinning, then continued, “Right, so we are sitting in this tavern near the harbour, and in strolls this captain of the Snake’s with a bunch of flunkies. The look mightily overworked, the poor lads, and complain loudly (as they shouldn’t, considering the number of spies about) about their increased amount of work, cursing the bloody tarks and the desert-rats (I did like that one) who caused it. They complain about their Master, too, and his policies. Seems our friend Marek’s turned a bit (more) paranoid recently and is giving them a hard time because of increased security and whatnot. So we’re nice and helpful citizens and buy them a well-earned drink or two, and, good lads that they are, they start chatting. And so we learn that the castle is in uproar, not only because lordship’s afraid now that a certain Steward will appear on his doorstep and make trouble (and his own shadow, it’s said), but also because Marek is planning a big party to show off his latest prize to his cronies, and lets himself be celebrated for his success at humiliating Gondor. Lots of important folks are going to attend, and there are some very special and very secret entertainments planned.

“The next day, more word’s gone out, and there are people going about in town buying (or ‘commandeering’) all kinds of goods, especially rare and expensive stuff from far abroad. All for the party, rumour has it. Workmen are being hired, and word is put out that more people are needed. People of all kinds of skill and craft and trade.”

“When is this party going to take place?” asked Faramir, his mind already racing with ideas. Lôkhî’s tidings were what he had not dared hope for. And apparently the little man had already plans for attending this party, and even started organising the venture.

“Today’s the what?” asked Lôkhî. “I lost my reckoning with all this travelling. Is it past midnight already?”

“Yes,” answered Khorazîr. “Today is the second of Urimë.”

“Then it’s a week from today,” said Lôkhî. “On the ninth. Plenty of time for preparations, I daresay. Wait until you see what I’ve – well, let’s stretch ‘commandeered’ even a little further, although we actually did buy some of the stuff. I’ve already given some thought as to how to get in (and out, of course), but you’ll have your say in the matter, too, of course. It’s not far now anymore. Hope our two stout pirates didn’t bring along any of the liquor. I forbade them to do so, knowing it wouldn’t keep long if they got their hands on it. But I fear they managed to smuggle some on board. We need them sober enough to help with unloading.”

+

The bottom of the valley was cool and dark under the trees. The old stairs brought them to the banks of the stream which ran swiftly in a deep channel to one side of the valley, with flat shoals of pepples and layers of sea-shells hemming it in which at high tide would be submerged. Right now the water had receded, as could be seen on the steep rocky slopes rising to both sides, where barnacles, mussels and sea-weed were exposed to the air. Trees grew down almost to the shore, overshadowing parts of the stream, and very effectively hiding the small one-masted, gaff-rigged sailing vessel which the three men had steered into and then dragged up the stream during high tide.

Lôkhî stepped from the trees whistling softly, and a figure disengaged itself from the shadow of the ship’s hull, replying with another whistle. “Took yah time, eh, Lôkhî?” he greeted them, approaching over the pebbly bank. Faramir recognised the pale-faced pirate who had been introduced as Ilkay. He, like Lôkhî, was clad like a trader, although he wore his new attire less gallantly and convincingly than Khorazîr’s ingenious guard. “Started to unload, we have. Emre’s right at it.”

As on cue, there was a grunt from the railing, followed by the thump of something soft and heavy hitting the ground. “Could need a hand up here, Ilkay, you lazy bum,” complained the other corsair. “Those bales are bleeding heavy.”

“Plenty of ‘ands just arrived,” Ilkay called up to him. To the others he said, “If we ‘urry, we can catch ‘igh tide while it’s still dark, and be off tah find the Captain.”

“Let us lose no time, then,” said Khorazîr, and together they set to work. In the darkness, Faramir was not able to entirely recognise what exactly they were unloading. There seemed to be bales of cloth and skins of liquids, several bags of what might be dried fruit and fish, or cured meat by their smell, and others containing small jingly objects – coins perhaps, or nails. Also, there were pieces of leather, three quivers of arrows, two bags of tools like axes, hatchets and the like, and an assortment of other items, the purpose of some of which was not immediately clear to him as they would serve neither as weapons nor as anything needed in a camp.

After they had finished unloading – the material had amounted to a heap of considerable size, far larger than the four of them would be able to carry in one tour – together they dragged the boat towards the waterline, which already had moved further up into the bay as high tide was approaching. By the time the two pirates had readied the sails, the vessel was afloat again, and with the aid of two stout oars and Khorazîr and Faramir wading behind the boat pushing, until the water reached up to their waists and the flat keel was in no danger of getting stuck on one of the shoals again, they set out again.

In the meantime, Lôkhî and Narejde had begun to divide up the “delivery” into various parcels light enough to be carried back to the camp. “We shall have to return here at least once to fetch all this stuff, if not twice, if none of the others is available to help us,” she said, lifting one of the jingly bags and shaking her head. “What is all this rubbish, Lôkhî? Are you sure we really need it?”

The small man did not seem offended by her remark, on the contrary. He grinned broadly. “This rubbish, my lady, should guarantee us free entry into the castle – and free exit, too, if all goes well. Back in the camp I’ll tell you of my ideas. Come on, let’s get going.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun 14 Sep , 2008 11:52 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
The healer dabbed ointment on Éowyn's wound. Wrinkles appeared around her eyes as she studied one portion of the red line, then lessened as she decided that what she had seen was nothing to be concerned about. “It's not very deep at all,” she soothed, “and there's no sign of infection.” She replaced the bandage and continued her quiet monologue of observations and recommendations for a swift healing. But her patient was hardly listening to her, instead lying silently with her head turned to one side, watching the hems of the curtains sway in the draft. “I don't know what that daft man was trying to accomplish,” she continued, pausing to see if her hinted question would draw any sort of response. When it was clear that none was going to come, she gave a final reminder to eat what was left on the tray and then excused herself.

Éowyn sighed as the door clicked shut. The older woman had simply been seeing to her duty, but the weary expectant mother just wanted to be alone for now. Another's presence was too much to bear. Healers and servants had tended to her throughout the night and morning, making sure her fever had indeed abated and that her appetite had returned, and was she comfortable enough and would she like something else from the kitchens instead and perhaps someone with a fan should be brought in to help keep the air circulating? Finally she had ordered them all out, even Miliani, so she could dwell on her sorrow without others trying to distract her from it.

She had argued with herself, going round and round about whether she had done the best thing in giving in to the Snake's demands, or whether she should have held out longer, to force his bluff. Whenever she had nearly convinced herself that if she had stared him down a few moments longer he would have sheathed the blade and instead made some snide remark, a tendril of pain would curl out from the wound down her middle and remind her why she had dared not continue calling his bluff. Were it not for that pain, she might have believed the whole thing had been nothing more than the most terrible of nightmares. Surely she had not turned traitor, telling her captor everything she knew about her beloved's whereabouts and doings?

Her thoughts had taken darker turns. She wondered how difficult life would be if she told the Snake he could stop with his schemes, that she would stay here with him willingly, if only he would give up whatever vendetta he held against Faramir. But would he still treat her as well when he had no further use for her? She could not trust his word anyway. And what of Faramir? She knew her husband would not stop trying to rescue her, would not believe that she had agreed to stay with the Snake, even to spare his life. Even as she thought this, her mind's eye saw the raw pain in her husband's eyes, the utter confusion that would cross his features as he realized that she had chosen to be parted from him. But he did not need her, not really. If he wanted someone to share his life, he need only hint that it was so. He was a handsome man, despite injury and long years of service in the rangers, and Éowyn had seen other women at court give him appraising glances when they thought she was not looking (and the more brazen ones, even when they knew she was.) He had power and prestige as the Steward, was in close confidence with the royal family, and had wealth – well, had indeed, for much of it was tied up in restoring the fief and other long-term investments, but he still had coin enough to live comfortably. Yes, he could easily find another wife.

Do you really think so little of him? This last beacon of level-headedness had scolded her frequently. Do you really believe he would so quickly, so easily find another in whom he could confide? How long was it before he whispered his fears even to you in those dark watches of the night? If he had wanted any other woman, he could have taken her as a mistress, as so many other men do. He has denied death and has come to take you home. She silently told herself to beg his forgiveness for doubting him thus. Then she had fallen asleep, tired from her mental anguish and the dual effort her body was giving to heal itself and care for the child.

She had woken when Miliani brought her lunch, and she had greedily cleaned off some of the plates. When she finished, she spoke a thought that had been troubling her. “How did he get the necklace and note that were hidden? Did you get them for him?”

The girl's eyes widened as she shook her head quickly. “No, he sent some guards to search your room, and they found them and brought them to him. Then he ordered me to tell him what they were and why they'd been hidden.” She bit her lip before continuing. “I said I thought they were one of his gifts, and you didn't like it and wanted it out of your sight. But you didn't want to get rid of it in case he wanted to see you in it sometime. So you found a place to hide it.”

Éowyn arched an eyebrow. “He really believed that?”

“I think so. He looked like he was thinking about it, but he also seemed distracted by something else.” She shrugged. “He sent me away without saying anything else about it.”

Éowyn had rested then, let the healer tend to her injuries, and now again was tumbling into unsettling thoughts. How would they ever get her out of this castle? How would they find her, for she was not sure where she now was within the castle walls. These certainly were not her rooms, nor did they seem to be within the women's quarters. She could not point to any particular difference, other than this area simply did not have the same atmosphere that she felt there.

She did not stir when the door opened, nor when padded footfalls drew near. “My lady?” Miliani's hesitant voice asked. “Lady Inzilbêth would like to see you, if you are well enough.”

Éowyn closed her eyes briefly. She did not want to see anyone now, but it would not be wise to disregard the young woman's sympathy either. “Let her come,” Éowyn said, shifting to sit up. Miliani helped her get comfortable with a pillow, then went to usher in the Snake's daughter-in-law. Éowyn thought she looked tired as well, and what passed for pale here, a less vibrant color in her cheeks. She sat on the edge of the bed, her hands clasped in her lap, eyes averted. After a moment of awkward silence, she took a breath as though to speak, then let it out again. A few more moments passed, and she tried again, but once more could not find the words. She shook her head and ran her fingers through her limp curls.

Éowyn searched for something to break the silence. “How is Dala?”

Seemingly relieved at not having to start the conversation, Inzilbêth replied hastily, “She's well. Sleeping right now.” She hesitated, again as though unsure what words to use. “Yours?” she finally murmured.

Éowyn unconsciously pressed her hand to the side where she had felt movement during her meal. “Well,” she said.

The other nodded. Then, “I don't understand it,” she blurted. “I don't understand why he would – what he was thinking – why he would...” She pressed her knuckles to her lips and turned away. Having composed herself, she said, “Adûn and I, we want to apologize for what happened. Adûn was stricken when he learned that Father had threatened your baby, and gave him some harsh words. If there is anything we can do to help make you more comfortable, please tell us. We have guest quarters, if you would like – ”

“If you really wanted to help me,” Éowyn said in a low voice, “you would work with my husband and his allies to free me.”

Inzilbêth inhaled sharply then released the breath heavily. “If only it were that simple,” she murmured, twisting a fold in her skirt. “But these are family things, and Adûn and I can't just –”

“I know how important family ties are here. I know he is your father-in-law, and I know you love your husband dearly, but I am not going to use soft and gentle words. Marek al-Jahmîr is an evil man and has done evil things, and now nothing short of his destruction will end what he has started. I would not go so far as to say that war is coming here, but before long things will get very uncomfortable for all here. My brother's riders are coming, and when they are in a fell mood, they may not care whether their arrows fall on enemy soldiers or unfortunate servants. And when foreign guards patrol the roads and the harbor is blocked and supplies are slow to enter and quick to disappear into greedy hands or up the road to this red rock on the hill, will the common townspeople glower at the ships and horsemen, or will they turn their mutterings toward the man who angered the north by attacking a prince stealing his lady? And will their anger stop with him, or will it extend to all of his kin, son, daughter or child?”

Inzilbêth flinched and looked away. Éowyn waited, letting her words sink into the young woman's mind. Surely she was not so blind as to believe that the Snake would come out unscathed, and his family as well? Faramir's patience, Elessar's patience, was long, but this assault on the Steward and herself had shattered it. A direct attack was unlikely, of course, but Éowyn knew her kinsmen and Gondor's armies could easily settle in for a long siege.

A changing stream of emotions flowed across Inzilbêth's features. Here there was anger, then bewilderment, then despair, then back to grim anger. Without another word, the Umbarian woman stood and hurried from the word, her footsteps echoing on the tiles.

Éowyn sank back onto the pillows and sighed, not entirely surprised that the other had fled. Pronouncements of doom were unpleasant to hear. She could only hope that Inzilbêth's anger would not keep her from seeing the truth. She sympathized with her, knowing that the Snake's daughter-in-law was caught in a situation not of her making, her ill fortune to be a part of this cursed kin. But that sympathy was tempered somewhat; the woman had known what kind of family this was. One could not claim ignorance when dealing with the house of al-Jahmîr.

+++

Later that evening as the sun was burning itself out in the sea, the healer checked on her again, and after that, Éowyn was surprised to find she had another visitor. Miliani brought over a cushioned chair for Adûnakhôr, and he sat heavily, rubbing his forehead. Éowyn watched him warily.

At he lifted his gaze and spoke. “I've told you before I don't appreciate you upsetting my wife.” He was quiet, weary. “The baby is enough to keep her occupied without dark thoughts plaguing her as well.”

“She wanted to know how she, and you, could help, and I simply offered an idea,” Éowyn replied.

He snorted. “Oh yes, and what an idea it was. Help spirit you away. I've told you before that I have no plans to turn traitor. And ... well, you'll see soon enough what happens to traitors in these parts.” He seemed lost in his own thoughts, his voice drifting off as he picked at a thread on his tunic.

“You are worried for your brother, are you not?” Éowyn asked quietly.

His head jerked up, his eyes flashing for a moment before the fire was extinguished. “I wish to offer my own apologies for what you had to suffer yesterday,” he said. Éowyn had not expected this subject, and it took her a second for his words to register. Adûnakhôr's lips curled up slightly in a wry smile as he noted her mild confusion. But that mirth was gone just as quickly. “I admit from time to time I am... concerned about the decisions my father makes,” he murmured. “More and more often, it seems. More than once I've wondered whether his mind is as sound as it once was. Nay, don't scoff so. A mere simpleton could not have built up the webs of connections he has spun, or crafted such intricate plans. It takes skill to broker peace between two sworn foes, at least long enough to accomplish some other task. When a ship flounders, fools are the ones dragged to the bottom by the weighty treasure chests; the wise ones wait and salvage the bobbing timber.”

“Are you one of those hoping the wooden chest is not weighted too heavy to float?” Éowyn asked.

He snorted and shook his head. “I'm somewhere up on the fo'c'sle with the captain, wondering how the bloody hell this squall turned into a shirrikan.”

“I have heard you can see those brewing for days before they arrive,” Éowyn ventured.

Adûnakhôr rubbed his forehead again. “Aye, that you can,” he muttered. “But enough of that,” he said, straightening in his seat. “I did not come to speak of weather or sailing. Inzi mentioned this, and I'd like to extend the invitation for you to take up residence in one of our guest chambers.” Éowyn raised her eyebrows. “I've heard that the consorts' quarters can be quite loud and bothersome, especially when some of them go on a rampage. Here it's quieter, more of a family life like you... It's different from where you are now,” he said.

Éowyn considered this. Though she liked some of the consorts, from what Miliani had told her earlier in the day about some of the pranks and revenges that had happened in the past, she also knew she did not want to risk becoming involved in the petty dramatics that flared. But moving to the family quarters meant that she likely would be closer to the Snake on a daily basis.

“I would take you up on that offer,” she replied, “but I doubt I am free to do so. After all, I am a prisoner here, and prisoners rarely choose their cells.”

Adûnakhôr grimaced. “I'll do my best to persuade Father.”

After he took his leave, Éowyn thought about this strange invitation until the stars began twinkling and sleep took her.

+++

The next day crept by. Aside from the healer, Éowyn had no visitors, and the loneliness surprised her. Miliani brought her some of the castle gossip, but none of the stories kept Éowyn's attention for long. She had quickly grown tired of court gossip in both Rohan and Gondor, and those same tales of scandal were here as well, with just names and stations changed. She had not seen the Snake in three days now, and his pointed absence left her somewhat uneasy. What was he doing with the information he had wrung out of her? Had he crafted some new plan to hunt Faramir and the others? As much as she loathed his presence, at least then she might be able to learn something of his schemes. And what of this weird proposal to give her new quarters? She had asked Miliani if she had heard anything, but the girl knew little about it.

Her questions, at least regarding rooms, were answered the following morning when the healer was accompanied by one of the bulkier house guards.

“I will walk,” Éowyn said when she learned that he was there to carry her to her new rooms.

The healer clicked her tongue. “Your ankle is in no condition for that,” she said.

“Then I will limp there on one foot,” Éowyn retorted. In the end, she agreed to lean on him for support instead of sending him away entirely, and during the several times along the way where she had to stop to catch her breath, she was secretly glad for him. When she had been told she would be in the family quarters, she had not realized just how close to Inzilbêth and Adûnakhôr's rooms she would be. Instead of turning to the right to go the room where she had dined with them previously, they kept straight and entered a room not much farther on the left.

Inzilbêth was arranging a vase of lilies on a small table when they arrived. “Oh good, you're here,” she said and looked around the room. “It's not as big as what you're used to, but it's more homey.”

Éowyn agreed as she sat in one of the two blue-and-white stuffed chairs. The curtains had been pulled back, letting the sunlight pour in. A long, narrow painting of dolphins skipping through the ways took up almost the length of one wall. The seashell mirror had been brought in from her other quarters, as had some other items.

“Your clothes are still being brought over,” Inzilbêth continued, coming to sit in the other chair. “But that'll be done by this evening. Is there anything in particular you want?”

“No, this is fine,” Éowyn said. “Thank you, for all you have done. I already like this one much better.”

Having seen her charge to her new quarters, the healer excused herself, but not without a reminder that Éowyn was still ordered to stay in bed. “Such a shame,” Inzilbêth said with a sly smile after the healer left. “I was going to invite you over to lunch with us, but I guess we'll just have to have a tray sent over here.”

“I have already walked this far today,” Éowyn answered in the same tone. “A few more steps will not hurt me, I think. I will not tell her if you do not.”

“Agreed. A conspiracy it is, then,” Inzilbêth said, grinning. “And I won't tell her if you sneak out to the gardens with me and Dala in the evenings, either.”

Lunch was pleasant, though Éowyn's hostess frowned when she learned her husband would not be joining them. Afterward she brought the baby out for Éowyn to see and hold. “They grow so quickly,” Éowyn said, shifting the warm bundle in her arms. “Already she has changed since I last saw her, and that was only a few days ago.”

A deep voice agreed. “She changes from morning to evening, if you don't watch her.” Both women turned as Adûnakhôr strode into the room. Weariness tugged at his features, but those lines disappeared as he kissed his wife as she rose to greet him. “I see our guest has arrived,” he said as he took a seat next to his wife.

“Yes, thank you,” Éowyn replied. “I- I did not expect you to have such success with your father.”

Adûnakhôr rubbed his eyes. “Ah, yes, Father. At first he was indignant that I'd even suggest such a thing, since he went to great lengths getting those rooms ready for you, but he gave in once I pointed out the dangers of where you were.”

“Dangers?” the women asked in unison, both sounding skeptical.

He grimaced, clearly wishing he had chosen his words more wisely. “I said you were close enough to the outer walls there that someone could try an escape attempt from there,” he muttered. “I told him here you would be in a more central location, harder to get to.”

“Oh, I see,” Éowyn said. She dropped her gaze and thus did not see the glare Inzilbêth gave her husband.

“Is that what this is really about?” the Umbarian woman snapped. “Not about how she shouldn't have to put up with those rotten girls?” She snorted. “Can you al-Jahmîr men do even one thing without linking it to one of your schemes?”

The accusation lingered in the tense silence that followed. “I'd have expected that from her, not you,” he murmured. “Perhaps I made a mistake, thinking this was a good idea at all.” He stood, wished them a good afternoon, and left. Éowyn looked up finally to see Inzilbêth staring at nothing, her lips pressed together in a thin, tight line. Shaking her head, she glanced down again at the little one who was starting to wake up. The dark eyes that peered up at her were so different from the ones that usually watched her from her breast, but the scrunching face followed with an unhappy cry were familiar enough.

As Éowyn soothed the baby, Inzilbêth muttered, “He told me it was to get you away from the consorts. That it would be nice for me to have someone to talk to.”

“Maybe that was part of it,” Éowyn replied as the child quieted. “Part, but not all.” She hesitated, somewhat surprised that she was going to come to his defense like this. “Perhaps the other part was what he needed to convince his father it was worthwhile.”

Inzilbêth sighed. “Perhaps.”

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon 15 Sep , 2008 9:20 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
The ceremonious unfolding of Lôkhî’s ideas concerning their attendance at Al-Jahmîr’s party took place much later than any of them had anticipated. The transport of the items the small man and the two pirates had ‘commandeered’ proved longer and more laborious than expected due to the weight of some of the bundles, bags and parcels and their general unwieldiness, and the steep climb over the ridge, which in the darkness made for a dangerous route even for the unburdened. The four of them had to return to the cove twice after delivering the first part of the goods to the camp, where Hanîje, Zubejde and Azrahil saw to stowing them away, and when they finally left the bay with the last bits of the haul on their backs, the pebbly shoals and shingle-banks were entirely submerged by the tide, and dawn was lightening the eastern sky.

The ascent to the windy ridge had been fraught with hardship even when had they climbed up for the first time, carrying the heaviest items, resulting in a silent journey despite everybody’s eagerness to discuss Lôkhî’s account. Wild ideas were coursing through Faramir’s mind because of this unlooked for opportunity, and glancing at the other’s strained yet lively expressions he knew they were engaged in similar thoughts. But already on the downward climb approaching the camp doubts had begun to curb his elation. By the time they scrambled up the ridge from the beach for the second time these doubts had taken deep root. This had to be a trap, he was certain. Why should Al-Jahmîr bother wasting his men on ill-fated scouting missions if he could contrive to catch his enemies with one fell swoop, by creating an opportunity for them to come to him, an opportunity they would not be able to resist.

He felt those doubts gnaw at his confidence and poison his resolve to risk whatever was necessary to rescue his beloved. He was almost grateful when, during the third and final trip, exhaustion and the increasing pain in his body finally drove all thoughts unrelated to keeping his legs from stumbling from his mind.

All four were panting, their faces sweat-streaked and even in the faint rosy light of dawn grey with exhaustion when they halted briefly on the final ascent, just below the steepest part of the climb where the ancient stair had been destroyed by the rock slide. His legs trembling with the strain and his injured shoulder throbbing dully, Faramir slipped a bale of cloth as long as his outstretched arms off his hale shoulder and slowly lowered himself onto one of the larger rocks. Lôkhî had simply sunk down on a pillow of thyme growing on a little terrace, and Khorazîr was freeing Narejde of her burden before dropping his own.

Looking at his friend, Faramir noted with concern that his features were not contorted by weariness only, but that he was barely managing to conceal some considerable pain from the others. By her alarmed expression, Narejde seemed to have come to the same conclusion. Both had, during their first return to the camp, exchanged the Snake’s livery with its hauberks and padded jerkins for lighter clothes without any armour, and now a dark stain was visible on the light-brown fabric of the Haradan’s left sleeve.

“So much for your sewing skills, dear,” he remarked dryly but with some effort, then drew a sharp breath, swaying slightly to rest against Narejde who quickly had stepped to him.

She shook her head, looking genuinely worried as she helped him sit down on the loose rock. “Bloody stubborn Southron that you are,” she returned while carefully rolling up his sleeve to reveal a blood-soaked bandage. “You should have listened to me and stayed in the camp after we had brought the first part of the stuff there. I told you this was too much for you, but nay, lordship insisted. If you continue like this, you will permanently damage that arm of yours – if you don’t break your neck falling on this climb, or your other injuries kill you.” Using her dagger to cut strips of cloth from her tunic, she bound the wound again, still shaking her head.

Khorazîr made a face at the painful procedure. Under different circumstances Faramir was certain he would have given her a deft reply, but he now he seemed too spent for even this. Exchanging a swift glance with Lôkhî, he saw the guard’s frown of deep concern.

“You will not continue with this bale,” he told Khorazîr firmly. “Narejde, get him back to the camp, and ensure that he rests – and you, too. You can barely keep on your legs, even though you try to hide it. Lôkhî and I will manage here.” He saw Lôkhî glance at the bundles and raise his eyebrows in a questioning and slightly helpless expression, before Khorazîr gave a snort.

“Sure you will, Dûnadan,” he said through gritted teeth, clutching his left side. “Because you did not slip or stumble once during our climb, and almost dropped your parcel down the hill-side when you lost your footing. I will hear no such nonsense. I am not dying just yet. All of us are tired, but let us get a move on. There is no good tarrying here. Once we have reached the ridge, the picket can help us, or fetch some of the others.”

With great reluctance, but because of their exhaustion resisting the temptation to discuss the matter in great length, they again shouldered their burdens and set out again. Fortunately, Aralas, Dirar and Hâmadar came to their aid when finally they reached the ridge, almost collapsing under the strain. Leaving the ranger as the new picket at the old watchtower, the others slowly dragged themselves down the winding path and cracked steps into the camp. The two women were on watch there, and Azrahil asleep under the makeshift tent with his lion resting next to him. Together with Hâmadar who wanted to relieve Mezlâr of his watch at the river, Faramir made his way down there to wash himself and his lower clothes which had been soaked with sea-water, and changed into dry garments. The cold water revived him a little, but not for long, so that when he returned to the camp under the warming rays of the sun, he barely managed to spread out the wet clothes to dry before he, too, surrendered to sleep.

+

Nothing untoward appeared to have befallen during the course of the day, because when he woke, a little stiff and achy still yet feeling, for the first time in days, fairly rested, he noticed that the sun was already westering. On a pile of blankets not far from him, he spotted Khorazîr, still asleep, with Narejde sitting next to her husband, combing her hair which fell in waves over her shoulder, softening her stern features and making her look much younger than her actual years, in the same way the tight queue she was pulling it back into most of the time seemed to age her appearance. A fine pattern of the blanket’s weave was still visible on her cheek – obviously, she had not long woken, too. Khorazîr’s features looked less pale and drawn in the warm sunlight, yet Faramir noted the deep line between Narejde’s eyes as she watched her husband.

“How is he?” he asked quietly.

“Better,” she replied. “But not well. He overestimated his own strength again, the foolish man, as usual. His injuries are not life-threatening, but only if he allows them to heal properly. Like this, they would endanger a much younger man. He is lucky his condition is not worse. He should begin to accept he is not that young anymore.”

“Shall I tell him, or will you?” inquired Faramir.

“Would you kindly cease your blabbering and leave an old man to his well-earned rest? Is dinner ready yet?” muttered Khorazîr without opening his eyes, but with a faint smile.

Narejde cuffed his shoulder affectionately. “Southrons!” she sighed exasperately, then gave a yelp when her husband pinched her side.

“I shall leave you two to discuss this in private, shall I?” said Faramir, rising and beginning to search together boots, sash and belt. The couple’s amiable banter which had turned into a small wrestling match caused him to recall, with a sudden sting, how now and again Éowyn would tease him about his age and the fact he was twelve years her senior. A wave of longing to see and touch her again and hear her voice rushed over him as he heard Narejde laugh softly, to be silenced by her husband’s kiss. Their meeting in the orchard seemed so long ago already. Would there be another?

+

By the time dinner was ready – thanks to Zubejde’s skill as a cook a far tastier and more substantial meal than the previous days –, most of the company had assembled round the fire. Hâmadar was watching on the ride, and Azrahil was again on picket-duty at the river, together with his lioness. Faramir knew he had chosen time and place deliberately so as not to be around in camp when the children were about. Both had taken to Lôkhî immediately after he had presented them with some sea-shells and a dried starfish he had found on the beach, and both were now sitting to either side of him on the ground, listening to a tale of how his grandmother had once had a little monkey which could do all kinds of funny tricks.

They had just begun to deal out the food when Mezlâr, who had been watching on the border the camp gave a whistle like the call of a bird, warning them of people approaching. But no soonder had they reached for their weapons when there came the all-clear signal, and Turgon and Nazîr were admitted into their round. They had exchanged their green, black and silver livery for plain, even poor clothes like those the local population usually wore, thus looking as inconspicuous as the ranger with his fair skin and grey eyes and the longbow over his shoulder, and the Haradan with his two scimitars and lithe, battle-hardened frame could hope to.

They were provided with food and drink and pressed for tidings. It transpired they had continued their little game of confusing the Snake’s soldiers by providing them with false information concerning the ‘tark’s and desert-rats’’ movements.

“We had a long chat with their commander, a sharp fellow named Rahmân,” said Turgon after wolfing down a bowl of mutton-stew and a slice of roast meat. “He does keep the lads busy, according to their complaints, and gives a damn for their misgivings about entering the woods round here. They don’t like to admit it openly, being proud Southrons after all, but some of them are scared somewhat mightily by the forests, especially after we told them what befell us, and how our company was well-nigh annihilated by the enemy.”

Nazîr nodded, grinning mischievously over the rim of his bowl. “Aye, we gave them a good ghost-story or two while having an friendly drink with them last night. Some, like Rahmân, are still very set on catching their Master’s enemies. I doubt he believes in ghosts. Al-Jahmîr put the right man in this place. But his authority is getting harder to maintain each passing day. No danger of mutiny yet, but the more soldiers we manage to account for, at best without their comrades learning of the exact circumstances of their disappearance, the shakier his command will get.”

“Did Rahmân suspect nothing when you showed up there?” asked Narejde.

“Not at first,” replied Turgon. “Only after he had time to think things through.”

“Yes,” fell in Nazîr, “today when we volunteered for another scouting mission – to try and return here, of course – he insisted that some of his lads accompany us. We led them away along the coast, and got rid of them discreetly, hiding their bodies in one of the caves that are partly submerged during high tide. We got us some new attire that hung out to dry at a little fishing hut, and returned here by a fairly indirect route. We left our uniforms in the cave and scattered those of the other soldiers, so that a search-party, should they run across the bodies, may think we, too, perished there.”

When questioned what else they had picked up chatting with the soldiers or listening to gossip in the fishing village, they revealed much the same information as Lôkhî had managed to gather in Ihimbra, only that theirs consisted of even wilder rumours and modified accounts than what was being told closer to the castle.

“What are all those things you brought last night?” asked Hanîje, ending a spell of silent eating. “We took apart some of the parcels in order to better stow the constants in the cave, and what they revealed were things not exactly needed for this camp, nor weapons or armour.”

“Yes, Lôkhî,” said Khorazîr, “you still owe us an explanation. What are your plans for this party of Marek’s?”

“Well, lord, they are no concrete plans as yet,” said the little man, rising from the ground where he had sat playing with the children to join the others. “I just played round with a few ideas, and tried to acquire lots of different materials which may come in handy in the venture. Some will perhaps turn out to be just useless rubbish, as my lady put it yesterday, but I thought I’d better cater for all eventualities.” Looking round into some confused faces, he gave a short account of what he had heard about the planned feast at the castle.

“Yes, there was mention of that in Badra as well,” said Nazîr. “Some of the fishermen were complaining that they had been told to save the best catches for the castle in the days prior to the ninth, and that payment was not what they would get elsewhere, on the regular markets. You plan to attend the party?” he then asked Lôkhî, who shrugged and grinned.

“Do you not think it’s a trap?” asked Turgon. “What if Al-Jahmîr set it up in order to lure us into the castle?”

“That was my first idea, too, of course,” said Lôkhî. “And even if the feast serves another purpose, such as displaying the Snake’s wealth and power, Marek would be a fool not to take into account that it also is a great opportunity for us to pay him a visit. In fact, I wonder that he decided to hold this feast in the first place, when on the other hand he drives his soldiers with a hard hand to follow every shadow, and has fortified his abode so that it’s unlikely any air can get in and out. The feast is going to be a nightmare for security, heedless if we make an appearance there or not.”

“Yes, it seems a strange decision to stage it right now, in a time when he has considerable worries for his safety already,” agreed Faramir thoughtfully. “But we should not forget that his position here is not as secure as he would like it to be. I am certain he knows by now that King Elessar and our navy are on their way hither, and that unless he has strong allies he is in no position to defeat them, nor even defend himself properly, strong castle or no. But who are his allies? From Umbar he can expect some help, but how much will that be? We know he has friends among the corsairs, and some of the southern warlords hail him. Yet these people are proud and strongly independent, and their friendship does not extend beyond their own interests.”

“Exactly,” fell in Khorazîr. “They will not blindly follow Marek into an adventure the purpose of which it is to upset the tarks. They will need assurance that some profit can be gained for themselves. Al-Jahmîr will have to placate them, to show off his own position, and remind them of his past successes, which, considering the result of his escapade on Tolfalas, may not look as shiny as he would like them to. So what could be better than inviting them to a feast where he can demonstrate his regained wealth and power, and his latest stroke against the tarks: the capture of the Steward’s wife.”

Narejde nodded. “Oh yes, Marek needs to boast before his potential allies, and also must reassure them they are going to win something by aiding them, and be it reputation only. Still, even if trapping us at this party is not his foremost goal, we must not storm into this thoughtlessly. For he will consider the high possibility of us showing up there, and he will be prepared.”

“Perhaps we should rather not go, then,” suggested Aralas somewhat timidly, as if anticipating the other’s protest. “At least some of us should not, those which can be most easily recognised.” He cast a glance at Faramir, then Khorazîr and Narejde.

Khorazîr gave him a smile. “Well, master ranger, your concern for your lord is commendable, but I doubt you will manage to dissuade him from attending this feast if there is the slightest opportunity for him to see his wife there.”

“But Aralas is right,” said Narejde. “The Dúnadan of all people should stay away from the place – or do you wish to contemplate Marek’s delight when he manages to catch the Steward of Gondor right under the eyes of the guests he is trying to impress anyway, most of which will be set stoutly against the tarks? And do not suggest that the Snake will believe that because of the danger Faramir is going to stay away. He knows he would risk everything, even his life, to win his wife back. He knows he would not stay away. And he is going to be prepared, especially after what happened in the orchard. He will be burning for revenge now, to wipe out this humiliation – which, agreed, was mostly due his own poor perception. And considering what befell in the orchard, even if he managed to find a good disguise and so enter undetected, will he manage to hold his temper and play his part? According to Lôkhî’s account he almost failed last time. I do you blame you, Dúnadan,” she addressed Faramir. “I would not manage to hold my temper in front of the Snake, either.”

“I think he learned his lesson,” said Khorazîr thoughfully. “And as for acting, now that he knows what to expect, I feel we can trust him to keep his emotions in check. He is a politician after all. He has experience in these things.”

“Maybe we should leave the decision whether to attend the feast or not to Lord Faramir himself,” suggested Zubejde quietly, causing all eyes to shift to him.

Faramir looked at them, drawing a deep breath. “I fully understand your concern. And I have to admit I am torn in mind in this matter. Yes, I yearn to see her again, and perhaps even work towards a way of freeing her at this feast. But I am also aware, painfully so, of the risks involved. Not just for myself, but for her, too. I am certain she was punished for what befell in the orchard. Also, I am concerned for everybody else. I have said before I do not want any of you risking their lives for Éowyn or myself, but, well, you refuse to heed my wishes in that respect. So perhaps before we decide who is to go, we should consider what it is exactly we want to achieve. Our greatest goal must be to rescue Éowyn, and assure her safe departure, taking into account her pregnancy. As much as this riles me, I do not believe we can actually free her during this feast, for she is likely to be watched more closely than ever. But we may manage to talk to her, and assess the security measures Al-Jahmîr has surrounded her with. Also, we can spy out the castle, and gather valuable information there. We may learn more about Marek’s allies, and perhaps people who might work for us, as informants. Also, it would be a good opportunity to smuggle somebody inconspicuous enough not to be recognised and traced back to us into the castle to stay, and be a link between us and Éowyn. We need to establish a reliable and secure way to communicate with her, and the feast could be just the right place to do so.”

A general nodding of heads and remarks of agreement followed his suggestions, and he continued, “Also, we need to discuss how this might be achieved with the smallest risk for everyone, and the greatest gain. It seems Lôkhî has entertained some ideas already, which he may wish to share.”

“Well spoken,” said the small man. “Right, so what I took into consideration was the following: there are some of us Al-Jahmîr knows and may recognise. These are my lord and lady, the Steward, and Azrahil. Also recognisable are the two rangers.”

“And myself,” said Hanîje. When the others exchanged surprised glances, she went on defensibly, “You do not believe I will sit here idly, do you? We are caught in this venture now, and I wish to contribute my share. The Snake is responsible for my husband’s death.”

“I am certain we will find a way for you to aid us without endangering yourself or your children,” said Khorazîr.

“I daresay we will,” agreed Lôkhî. “You are a learned tailor, are you not? Well, excellent. You will have plenty of work ere long.”

“You are thinking of having costumes made?” inquired Faramir. “Hence all those bales of cloth?”

Lôkhî nodded. “There are two things we should base our plans on: distraction and disguise. Both must be very good and convincing, of course. The distraction must look, for example, like a serious attempt at breaking into the castle. And the disguise has to be utterly convincing so as to rule out the slightest doubt on Al-Jahmîr’s account. Moreover, it must be matched by meticulous acting. We were lucky in the orchard. Marek didn’t know what to look for, otherwise your attire wouldn’t have fooled him. But he will watch out for a tall, grey-eyed man now, and most likely expect altered hair and a false beard. Perhaps a stolen uniform – surely the gold-pheasant has told him we acquired some during the sea-battle.”

Narejde shook her head. “I doubt we can disguise him so that Al-Jahmîr does not recognise him. He should not enter the castle, hard though that is going to be for him. The risk is too great.”

“Well, good luck with trying to keep him out of there,” muttered Khorazîr dryly, giving Faramir a swift glance and a quick smile.

“You forget the distraction, my lady,” said Lôkhî. “If we can contrive that Marek doesn’t expect him to show up right at the party, if we can convince the Snake the Steward is elsewhere, chances are that he is not going to look too hard for him in his immediate vicinity.”

“Do you have in mind to disguise someone else as Lord Faramir?” asked Turgon.

“Yes. It would be a dangerous part to enact, but an important one.”

“But it’s a splendid idea,” replied the ranger. “And I know the ideal candidate.” With that he rose and moved over to Aralas who was just taking a sip from a cup containing peppermint-tea, to slap his shoulder heartily, causing the ranger to cough and spill most of his drink.

“Watch it, Turgon,” he complained, looking up at the others who were gazing at him with great interest. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“With a haircut and some black dye, and a decent shave for once you would make a good substitute for our captain, don’t you think? You are similar in height and build, and your features are somewhat like his, too, at least if seen from a distance. What say you, sir?” he then inquired of Faramir.

“You have a point there, Turgon, but I fear Aralas does not look very eager to take up the part, and I do not blame him.”

“I will do it,” Aralas fell in immediately, without thinking twice about the danger. “Despite having to cut my hair,” he added somewhat less enthusiastically after a moment’s consideration, when it transpired that there would not be risk only, but also a sacrifice on his behalf.

“You may not be the only one to endure a haircut, or worse,” said Lôkhî soothingly. “Those whose features are known to the Snake must change their looks considerably if they wish to come anywhere near the castle.”

“We will think of something,” Narejde assured him, with a thoughtful glance at her husband, as if contemplating what to alter about his appearance to render him inconspicuous. Khorazîr noticed, raising his eyebrows warningly.

“Surely they will need good cooks as well, to cater for all the guests,” said Zubejde suddenly. “I have a mind to apply for such a position – together with an apprentice, perhaps. And no,” she said to her daughter, who had tensed at her suggestion and seemed about to protest, “I will hear no word from you against it. My mind is rather set on it. My face is not known in the castle, although I am known around town, of course. But I could change my looks too, or even disguise as a man.”

“I did not quite dare to ask you, knowing that you have your family to mind. ” said Faramir. “Still, your suggestion is very much appreciated. If you managed to gain this position, you would also gain an excellent opportunity to remain in the castle after the feast – should your cooking skills prove convincing enough, which I do not doubt. You could be the inside contact we so sorely need.”

“Good, that is settled, then,” said the old woman plainly, although her daughter’s expression indicated there would be discussions about it once they were alone.

Sensing the tenseness of the situation and evidently hoping to steer the conversation away from the subject, “You sounded as if you already had a plan for yourself, Lôkhî,” said Faramir. “What are you going to disguise as?”

“Not a set plan, yet, just an idea,” replied the guard. “Since they are looking for all kinds of artists and performers, I thought this might be a good way not just to get into the castle, but moreover reach the area where the important people are going to gather. Well, I can do a trick or two with cards, and eat fire and some such things. Conjure coins out of people’s noses and turn a bunch of flowers into a handkerchief. As a lad I could juggle, too. Would need to practise that a bit to see if it’s still there. Then there’s Mezlâr, who’s a true artist with his knives and daggers. The two of us could stage a show which I am quite convinced would catch the interest of those organising the Snake’s entertainments, enough to invite us. Once in there, we would hopefully be free to move about the guests, and perhaps even accost your lady.”

“Very risky again, but a good idea,” Narejde commented. “I would volunteer as an assistant, and even don a dress for that purpose, but I doubt this disguise would suffice to prevent me from getting recognised by Marek. He has seen me both in male and female guise before. I think I would rather see to the distraction, then, together with Azrahil, who must also stay away from the castle proper.”

“He is not going to like that,” muttered Khorazîr, and Narejde shrugged. “He may need some persuading, but he will understand, eventually. We simply have to provide him with enough tasks to keep his mind off that girl.”

“Well, there are plenty of others to serve as an assistant,” said Lôkhî, “although I must say a pretty lass to draw looks from the crowd with Mezlâr throwing knives at her would add tremendously to our act. I won’t ask you, lady,” he addressed Hanîje, “because you, too, are known in the castle, and moreover have your children to mind – especially if your mother gets accepted as cook.”

“How pretty do you reckon she needs to be?” inquired Khorazîr suddenly.

“Why do you ask, dear? Do you wish to get rid of your beard and don a dress?” Narejde asked mischievously. There were several grins in the company, with Nazîr snorting into the tea he had been about to take a sip of.

Khorazîr looked aghast at the suggestion. “Of course not,” he snapped. But then his expression changed as he gazed at Faramir. “Am I the one deadly eager to get into the castle?” he asked, his smile turning decidedly wicked when all heads went round to glance at the Dúnadan.

“Very funny, Khorazîr,” returned Faramir, thinking the Haradan had made a joke on his account. But then he noticed the looks he was receiving from his companions, realising that apparently some had taken his friend’s chestful suggestion seriously, and were actually considering it. They were gazing at him thoughtfully now, evidently trying to imagine him in female attire. He felt his cheeks beginning to colour. This conversation was beginning to develop in a strange direction, one he was not sure he appreciated.

“He’s too tall,” said Nazîr, “and his shoulders are too broad to make a convincing woman.”

There were several nods from the others. “Nor do his features look very feminine,” mused Dirar.

“Unlike yours, eh?” teased Nazîr, causing young Dirar to blush vehemently. He was even younger than Murâd had been, in his early twenties, and more than once Faramir had overheard the other, older guards making chestful remarks about his so far rather feeble attempts at growing a beard, and the fact his face was still rather soft and round, with long lashes and, for a man, full lips.

“Do not be too hard on the lad,” said Khorazîr. “I remember you, Nazîr, only started looking like a man when you were ten years older than him.”

“But perhaps we should nevertheless keep Dirar in mind for this very special task,” suggested Narejde.

The young man flushed even deeper red. “I will not dress like a girl,” he protested, springing to his feet and looking shocked, even insulted. “It’s one thing to have all of you tease me about my looks, but to go to Ihimbra and … No, forget it. You can punish me for disobedience, my lord, lady. I’ll gladly endure whatever hardship you devise. Just do not ask this of me.”

“Sit down, Dirar, and calm yourself,” Khorazîr commanded him sternly, yet with barely concealed amusement. “We will find another task for you. There will be plenty, rest assured, and not all of them are going to be something to appreciate.” Dirar took a deep breath, nodded, and slowly lowered himself to his seat again.

“Even if Dirar had accepted to take over this part, we still would need a convincing disguise for the Dúnadan,” Narejde took up the original topic again. “I still hold he should not enter the castle, but if he cannot be prevented – as seems likely –, well perhaps this would be right disguise. I agree with what has been said about his stature and features, though. How do you plan to conceal them, and make him look like a real woman, not just a man in a dress?”

“Well, one could say I have some experience with these issues,” said Lôkhî, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, “and there are several tricks we could engage. His height is a problem, and we can’t do anything about it. So we’d need a good story to explain it. With the right padding in other places – to draw looks –, nobody will heed his shoulders. Some loose-fitting over-garment works wonders there, too, and moreover is excellent to hide stuff in, like daggers. Underneath, he would have to wear a bodice with something stuffed down the front to give him some chest. Then a bit of padding on his hips, sewn into the skirt, perhaps, and there you have a nice female figure. He is slender enough round his waist to make that work. He would need a veil to cover his lower face, although we should cater for the possibility that he might lose it, and paint his lips a little to make them look larger. With lots of khol round the eyes and some false lashes … We brought some silks and small coins and glass-beads, you know, and …”

“With the right materials, I could make such a dress,” fell in Hanîje eagerly. “I would just need his measurements, and perhaps two or three people to help me with doing up hems and the like, so that I could concentrate on the more difficult cutting and sewing – for surely more costumes than just his will be required –, and there would still be time to rehearse your parts before the feast.”

“Wait a moment,” Aralas interrupted, half rising from his seat in agitation. “You cannot be serious about sticking him into a dress and painting his face and whatnot. Dirar has just refused to do so, and understandably so. Imagine what would happen if he got caught and Al-Jahmîr and his assembled allies saw him like this. Are you considering his reputation at all?”

“If he gets caught by Al-Jahmîr,” Khorazîr remarked with a wry smile, “his reputation is going to be the very least of his worries.”

“But sir, you cannot seriously be considering dressing him up as a woman, can you?” the ranger asked incredulously. “I mean it is one thing to disguise oneself as another person. But this … it’s simply not proper. He is the Steward of Gondor after all, and ....”

“Why not?” asked Narejde. “Nobody thought it strange when Lôkhî disguised as the old crone, or when I don men’s attire. Remember, even the Steward’s wife herself, your Lady of Ithilien disguised as a man and achieved a great victory during the War. Why then should it be improper for him to dress as a woman to try and rescue his beloved. You men are such stubborn idiots when it comes to matters concerning your honour – and apparently you Gondorians are no better than the fools round here. I am certain he is not going to enjoy it – nobody enjoys wearing a tight bodice that barely lets you breathe properly. But there won’t be an easy way for him to get into the castle, if he insists on attempting it. And there is something else speaking for this disguise: I think we can safely assume it’s one Al-Jahmîr will not expect, not even contemplate. No proud Haradan would – their reaction, as my dear husband and Dirar have just shown, would be quite like yours. But we have not heard the Dúnadan himself on this matter.” She glanced at Faramir and smiled. “And no wonder, as he seems under shock still.”

Shock was not the exact description of Faramir’s state of mind, he decided. Part of him was revolting at the suggestion, not so much because of what might be considered proper or not in regard of his reputation, but rather because he could not see himself giving a successful performance as a woman. Nazîr was right: in these parts where even most men were considerably smaller than him, a woman his size would look utterly conspicuous. Yet, he had to concede Narejde had a point: this disguise nobody would expect of him, and if done well, it did not have to look entirely ridiculous. And there was still time enough to test if it would actually work.

“What say you, Dúnadan?” inquired Khorazîr, his eyes glinting with unveiled amusement.

“He is wondering what his wife is going to say if he appears before her wearing a more elaborate dress than herself,” suggested Lôkhî with a grin.

“Nay,” Narejde mused, watching the Gondorian carefully. “He is considering it, seriously.”

“You know, ‘tis rather irritating to have you talk about me like I was not present,” said Faramir, “and nice of you to decide what would be the best course for me to take. You are right, Narejde, I want to attend this feast and try and meet Éowyn. I am aware of the risk – indeed, I know she will not fully appreciate my appearance there, knowing that I am endangering myself by doing so. Yet, as has been said before, there is no safe place for me, neither here nor there. And perhaps the closer I can get to Al-Jahmîr, the safer ‘tis going to be, as he will expect me to try and evade capture at all costs. For this reason, your suggestions for a disguise are good and well considered.

“The idea of disguising as your charming assistant, Lôkhî, is also valid, even tempting,” he continued with a wry smile, “were it not for the fact I would need to don an attire I cannot see myself look convincing in. The height is one problem, and I spot too many others, which cannot be hidden by dyes and cloth and painted features alone. I am not afraid of the damage my reputation may receive – Khorazîr is right, if I was caught, I would have plenty of other worries. ‘tis just … I simply do not see how this could work, especially if I enacted a part construed to draw attention, as I would as the assistant, with Mezlâr throwing knives at me. I should prefer to remain inconspicuous and try and blend into the crowd.”

“Well, as the assistant you would need to do other things than just stand there, and perhaps carry about our stuff,” said Lôkhî, obviously still hopeful to convince him. “Can you do any acrobatics, or tricks?”

“He’s an excellent bowmen,” said Turgon.

“Yes, but surely Al-Jahmîr knows that,” cautioned Khorazîr. “Moreover, we will have to take into account that we may not be allowed to bring any weapons to this feast, not openly, at least. That goes for Mezlâr’s daggers as well.”

“He could learn how to juggle,” Aralas suggested.

“In a week?” Lôkhî said doubtfully. “He might manage three, perhaps, four when he’s really talented. But that won’t be enough to impress the guests.”

“He is good at reading people’s minds,” said Narejde thoughtfully, and Khorazîr nodded. “Uncannily good,” he agreed. “I had seen him do it before, but how he dealt with this bloated gold-pheasant on the ship was amazing. He was able to deduct details from this boy’s past the lad was not aware of himself, it seemed.”

“Yes, but that won’t help us, would it,” said Lôkhî, “unless …” He starting tapping his chin with his finger. “Unless we make a show out of it. We could present him as someone exotic, someone from far away …”

“Which would account for his strange looks,” nodded Narejde.

“Why not introduce him as an Elf?” suggested Hanîje. “That was the first thing my son asked him, because of his eyes. Gimil has never seen an Elf before, and I doubt any of the guests have.”

“I haven’t,” admitted Dirar, and Nazîr nodded, indicating he had not, either.

“I like that idea,” said Khorazîr. “Elves are known to possess strange powers, and he can talk their tongue alright, even the ancient one. Why not set him up as a fortune-teller? Someone mysterious who looks at you and tells you things he reads behind your eyes. You think you could do that, Dúnadan?”

Faramir nodded slowly. “Aye, possibly,” he answered. “There would still be need to disguise me, though.”

“Well, you’re not just an Elf, but a mysterious Elvish lady from the North,” said Lôkhî, grinning broadly. “We could explain a lot of things that might look strange about you with that: your height, your build, even the colour of your eyes. Your accent, too.”

“You do not give up that dress-idea, do you?” asked Faramir, shaking his head.

“Nay, never,” Lôkhî replied, grinning.

“All is settled, then,” stated Khorazîr with some finality. “Good. Now we can begin to consider what the rest is going to do. We will have to decide rather quickly, as we are going to need time to spy out the castle properly and—”

“Wait a moment,” interrupted Faramir. “Nothing is settled yet. I did not agree to the last suggestion, did I?”

“I shall make the dress, lord, and you try it on,” said Hanîje, fighting hard to hide a smile at his consternation. “I promise you will not look ridiculous. I am sure you will make a very pretty Elf.”

The company burst out laughing, with Khorazîr clapping Faramir’s shoulder encouragingly. Realising that more arguments and resistance would be futile, Faramir sighed deeply, trying to imagine Éowyn’s reaction if he indeed managed to meet her in the attire he had been sentenced to wear. Would she laugh as well, or chide him for dressing up funnily while she was suffering at the Snake’s court? He was convinced he would be looking ridiculous, whatever Hanîje’s assurances. Hopefully, the others would agree, and allow him to don some other disguise.

He sighed again. “What colour are those silks you acquired, Lôkhî?” he asked wearily. The little man smiled happily. “Oooh, we have just the right ones for you, sir.”

+

Azrahil, Mezlâr and Hâmadar were exchanged by Aralas, Nazîr and Turgon and also informed of their plans. As Narejde had foreseen, Azrahil was eager to join those parties about to try and gain entry into the castle proper. These were going to be the “entertainers”: Lôkhî, Mezlâr and Faramir, perhaps with another assistant whose identity was still left open, and Zubejde who was to apply as a cook, with Dirar as her young apprentice. Their task of the coupled would be in the days to come to journey to Ihimbra, quickly gain a reputation in their profession and get hired for the party. They were set to leave on the next day, and to try and make contact with Rabô and Numaïr to learn about the latest developments.

“Another party should attempt to sneak into the castle, albeit so conspicuously as get detected, and thus serve as a distraction,” said Narejde. “I would lead it, and I want you to accompany me, Azrahil. Also, Aralas should be there, posing as the Steward, and one or two others.”

“If we are lucky, more people will have arrived by then,” said Khorazîr. “Some of the rangers, and my household men. I expect them any day now. We should also try and sneak more people into the castle, disguised as guards or servants – the latter would be better, I reckon, as Al-Jahmîr must know by know we have several of his guards’ uniforms. I would lead such a party.”

“Good idea,” agreed Faramir. “We may need some backup to ensure our safe escape, should things go awry at the party, and we be discovered.” The image of Al-Jahmîr pulling the veil of his face to reveal khol-blackened eyes and red-painted lips appeared unbidden before his eyes, and he shook himself to get rid of it again. “Still, you would need a good disguise, too. Especially you, as Marek knows you well.”

“He is right, dear,” said Narejde. “I fear the beard will have to go, and most of your hair, too,” she added matter-of-factly.

Khorazîr spun round to her and gaped at her with an expression of deepest shock. “What? Are you out of your mind, woman?”

She faced him calmly. “No, not at all. You were all for sticking your friend into a dress, but now when it comes to disguising yourself convincingly you shy away from the slightest sacrifice. It will grow back, will it not? You could of course stay here and look after the camp, too, if you prefer,” she ended with a shrug and a faint smile.

Khorazîr glowered, first at her, then at the rest of the company who were busy hiding grins. “Oh, Marek is going to pay for this!” he at length vowed darkly, sitting back and folding his arms in front of his chest. “For every single hair I have to shed because of him!”

Narejde drew close to him to lightly kiss his cheek. “I am sure it will make you look even younger, my dear,” she told him gently, running a hand through his long, grey-streaked locks.

+

Darkness had fallen by the time they had ended their discussion. They had advanced a great deal, Faramir was glad to realise, and even though he was still unhappy about his lot in the venture, he had for the time being resigned himself to at least trying on ‘that dratted dress’, as he liked to refer to it, in the faint hope that it might not look convincing at all, and he be allowed to disguise as someone else.

But before that, the dress had to be made, and moreover the other costumes seen to. Together with Lôkhî and Hanîje he began to unpack the bales of cloth, and in the light of several small lamps looked at the different fabrics and colours.

“This dark blue would suit you well, sir, I think, and hopefully give you this mysterious Elvish appearance you need,” said the tailor. “There is enough here for skirts and veil and long sleeves. This stout unbleached linen I can use for the bodice, and line it with silk on the outside to match the rest of the dress. Perhaps even on the inside, to make it more comfortable to wear. There may even be time for some embroidery. I would need something to stiffen the bodice, however. Fishbone would be best, but I could make do with other bone, or even wood. For you and Mezlâr we can use these bright colours, master Lôkhî,” she added, pointing at silks in orange and red, which glowed intensely, almost garishly in the warm light of the lamps.

“Now, let me take your measurements, so that I can begin to cut the cloth. How thoughtful of you to bring all the material I would need, even a good pair of scissors,” she said, giving Lôkhî an appreciative glance.

+

When at sunrise Faramir returned from an uneventful watch up on the ridge, he was amazed how far his costume had advanced during the night. “You should not be sewing with so little light, lady,” he chided a tired-looking but still enthusiastically sewing Hanîje as he helped himself to some breakfast. “Do get some rest.”

She shook her head, brushing a strand of hair from her brow. Faramir assumed she welcomed this task and the distraction from her grief it provided, and thus drove herself so relentlessly. “Just let me finish putting together the actual dress so you can try it on. My mother has agreed to help me with the hems and borders, so has one of your rangers.”

“Aralas, I reckon. He is rather good at these things, although he does not like to admit it.”

Hanîje only shook her head. “Men,” she snorted. “Lady Narejde was quite right with what she said. Why is it that you consider ‘women’s tasks’ below your status? Can you sew, lord?”

“Well, I have sewn up wounds, yes, and mended a garment or two when there was need, but—”

“Good, you can help me here,” she interrupted him, handing him two lengths of silk and a threaded needle. “Just stitch them together. It does not have to be very accurate as the folds are going to hide the seam anyway.”

+

Around noon, bodice and skirt were completed enough for a first fitting.

“You might as well do it openly,” said Khorazîr who had recovered from the prospect of having to shed his beard and severely cut his hair, grinning at Faramir wickedly when the Dúnadan set forth to change in the privacy of the tomb. “We shall demand you presenting yourself in your new attire anyway.”

Faramir gave him a withering look, but relented. Soon, dressed only in his drawers, he climbed into the voluminous, still more than ankle-long (because not yet seamed) skirts and held the bodice to his chest, so that Hanîje could fasten the laces on the back. The padding for the bosom was not yet in place, nor that for the hips, and since he could only see a part of himself, he had no idea what the overall impression might be. The onlookers were careful to keep their expressions impassive.

“Hold your breath,” advised the tailor, and pulled on the laces. Faramir winced. “Does it have to be so tight?” he complained. “I doubt I will be able to move in this, nor even breathe properly.”

Hanîje and Narejde exchanged a knowing look. “It’s not tight, lord,” the former said apologetically. “In fact, it needs to be drawn much tighter, still. You will need to wear it a few times to get used to it.”

“But it fits perfectly,” said Narejde appreciatively. “You are a very good tailor, Hanîje. Well, Dúnadan, the sleeves once attached will need to cover most of your arms and shoulders, because they are too muscular for a woman – and too scarred. I fear we shall have to do something about your legs, however, because there is always a chance that the skirts get caught in a breeze and be blown up.”

“What do you mean, ‘do something about my legs’?” asked Faramir suspiciously. “I was thinking about simply wearing trowsers underneath the skirt. Surely I will not be parading my bare legs round the place.”

“Trowsers is an idea, of course,” conceded Narejde, looking slightly disappointed.

“What did you have in mind for my legs, then?” he inquired, with dark foreboding.

She shrugged. “Wax, for example. Ah, but perhaps we won’t need that, then,” she added quickly, seeing his expression. “At least we are lucky and won’t have to treat your chest that way.”

“Why do I constantly get the impression you are enjoying this tremendously?” he asked, tugging at the bodice in order to prevent it from tweaking his ribs. As long as he stood with his back very straight, it was almost comfortable to wear. But as soon as he let his shoulders drop a little, the pain started.

She grinned. “Because I am. I spent so many years of my life disguising as a man, and apart from Lôkhî have never seen a man successfully dress up as a woman, unless it be in a funny theatrical. Not a serious disguise like yours, you see. It gives me deep satisfaction to finally witness it. I am sorry you are the one to endure it – Dirar would have been a far better candidate –, but seeing you, even in this unfinished state, I have to agree with Lôkhî. I think you will make a very convincing Elvish lady. You will need to practise a few things, of course: walking and talking and sitting down like a woman, for example, and some typical mannerisms. And not only that: you will have to move gracefully like an Elf. You are a good dancer, so that should not be a problem. The rest I think I can help you with. I had to learn to do all things like a man in order to look convincing, therefore I know what one must keep in mind. What do you think, Hanîje? Shall we release him for now?”

“We should add the padding, first,” said Lôkhî, ambling over from where he had practised juggling with pine-cones, with the children as a critical audience, to get a better look at Faramir and slapping the Dúnadan’s chest. “What do you prefer?” he inquired mischievously. “Apples, or watermelons?”

“To hit you over the head with?” inquired Faramir sweetly.

Lôkhî took a step back. “Not very ladylike, that remark! We’ll have to work on your manners, too, it seems.”

“I shall see to the padding, alright?” fell in Hanîje quickly, undoing the laces again. “But first I do need a break, and must look after the little ones, too. Thank you for entertaining them for so long, Lôkhî.”

“My pleasure,” he replied, bowing.

“You were quite good with those cones,” said Faramir, drawing a deep breath when finally the bodice was untied enough for him to slip out of the dress.

“Yes, I’m amazed I haven’t unlearned it over the years. I’ll try torches next. When Mezlâr’s back from his watch we should work on our act together. Also, we’re going to need a good story to tell in town. You know, where we come from and the like. And once the costumes are ready and our parts well rehearsed, we must set out into town, for the ultimate test. If they buy our performance there, we’ve got good chances it’s going to work at the feast as well. We’ll need to create enough of a stir to be spotted and hired.”

“And at the same time be careful not to get recognised,” Faramir cautioned from inside his shirt. “Spending a few days in town is going to be highly dangerous,” he went on as he resurfaced, reaching for his trowsers. “But I agree, we need to test if our disguise works where there is still an opportunity to disappear if it does not.”

“There is a downside to it, however,” said Lôkhî. “For you, at least.” He gave Faramir a broad grin. “You’re going to have to wear this far longer than just one day.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Thu 06 Nov , 2008 4:56 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Éowyn and Inzilbêth strolled through the gardens, taking advantage of the morning breeze before the day grew hot. It had been six days since her fall in the orchard, two since her change in quarters, and her ankle was hardly sound, but Éowyn had quickly grown irritated with staying indoors. And, she reasoned, a little exercise was better for the muscles and tendons than letting them continue to weaken with disuse. Inzilbêth had easily agreed to a short walk, and she was now pointing out tiny pink flowers to the sleeping baby on her shoulder.

They were not alone among the blossoms today. Gardeners, craftsmen, and others were busy at work trimming hedges, repairing chipped stonework, and preparing the area for the party that was to be held in just four days. A large white tent was being set up in the center of the garden, with one of the resident fountains in the center. As the women drew closer, they saw strands of golden suns, moons, and stars being strung along the outer awning, and workers were carrying coils of the same inside. Smaller tents in shades of red and gold and green were being set up around it. A peacock strutted along the pathway, and a girl with a broom shooed it away before returning to the patch of stone she had been cleaning.

“Sand?” Éowyn asked, nodding toward a pair of men emptying a cartload of the stuff into a boxed-off area.

Inzilbêth watched them for a moment. “Someone must be coming to do a sand sculpture,” she replied. “They're popular at occasions down in the city. I've seen castles, people, even ships in full sail, made out of sand.” She sighed. “When I was a child, we would go down to the shore sometimes and play in the sand. We'd take old bowls or cracked cups and make our own sand designs. My brother once made a tower as tall as he was just using a cracked ale mug. But then he tripped and fell on it, and it was gone. Sand doesn't forgive mistakes like that.”

The clatter of a cart announced that more supplies had arrived. “This place is going to be busy for a while,” Inzilbêth said. “Let's go back in before we get in the way.”

“How many people do you think will attend?” Éowyn asked as they turned for the path back. She knew that several of the Snake's friends and allies would be here, but from the preparations already underway, it looked like there were going to be far more people than she had anticipated.

“Last I heard, Father had invited ten or so people he really wants near him right now, and they'll of course bring their advisors. Some other influential members from the city itself and the town will likely come as well. Perhaps even one or two people who weren't invited will show up at the gates anyway, just to make a statement. So, we could have quite a full house before everyone's seated.”

Éowyn nodded slowly. “Not a small, intimate gathering at all.”

Inzilbêth gave a wry smile. “Nothing this family does is ever small.”

They retreated to the coolness of the house, and Éowyn put her feet up on a footstool as she relaxed. Inzilbêth settled in a chair opposite her, moving her squirming daughter down into her arm. A servant poured them a drink of fruit juices, which Éowyn sipped gratefully. A dull throb radiated from her ankle; perhaps she had overestimated how long she should have been on it.

“It is a nice day to be out of doors,” Inzilbêth said after a while. “You know, I haven't been beyond the walls since we got here? I'd love to go down into town and see what the merchants are offering these days, what new diversions the street entertainers have thought of.”

“Then why don't you go?” Éowyn replied.

The other sighed. “Adun and I went round and round about this the other day. He doesn't want me to go alone, or take Dala, but I don't want to leave her behind, either. He's worried bandits might come down out of the hills and attack the town. I told him that was an absurd idea, but he was adamant.”

Éowyn shook her head. An attack by bandits was not such a preposterous thought if you were sure they were no band of raggedy lowlifes but instead well trained rangers from up north. She could understand why the Snake's son was reluctant to let his wife leave the safety of the castle, though she doubted these “bandits” would stoop to using the same tactics as the Snake. “If he is so worried about your safety, why not give you a guard? Surely someone could be spared. As for the baby, I could watch her for a few hours without a problem.”

“Would you?” Inzilbêth brightened. “You know your way around babies, so I'm sure Adun couldn't object to anything there, and I can make him see that a guard or two would ease his worries about me going. Besides,” she added, “he even said that patrols in town are being stepped up ahead of the party, so I doubt even the drunks won't be making any mischief.”

Despite her optimism, when she presented her revised idea to her husband at lunch, he did not immediately change his mind. “No, Inzi,” he said wearily. “Tomorrow is out of the question. Anytime before the party, and probably a while after it, is out too.”

“You're being unreasonable.”

“No, there's a very real threat right now, and I don't want to take the chance of you getting caught up in it.”

The Umbarian woman crossed her arms and leveled her gaze, which her husband returned evenly. Éowyn watched the two with amusement. “Phantom bandits,” Inzilbêth stated. “You're worried about phantom bandits who have made no sign of attacking the town. They don't have a reason! Nothing is going to happen on a quiet, sunny morning, dearest.”

Adûnakhôr glanced at Éowyn, and she saw the debate playing in his eyes. She returned his gaze, hiding her uncertainty about the hard light she saw as he turned back to his wife.

“I don't want you to go,” he said quietly, “because tomorrow we will likely stir up trouble. Aurens and I are taking a detachment out to search the area south of town, by the woods and the old tombs. He's had enough of yellow-hearted search parties refusing to do a thorough hunt for the outlaws we know are lurking around there, and we're both more than fed up with those who do venture into the woods getting slain. We're putting an end to it.”

Inzilbêth lost some color in her face, and Éowyn felt her lunch weigh heavy in her stomach. She had no doubt both he and the commander would not be overpowered by the same fears the common soldiers were. She forced her expression to remain steady, to reveal nothing of the growing dread within her.

“Another time,” Adun said, “but not tomorrow.” He took his leave, and after he had gone his wife snorted.

“As if outlaws would run from the hills straight into town, where there are just more soldiers waiting for them,” she said, stabbing at the fish on her plate with a fork. “I'm going,” she stated, her eyes bright. “I'll take the carriage, and a couple guards, and one of my maids. If I stay here, I'll just fret about him, and he never need know I was gone.”

Éowyn only half listened to the other's decision. Her head was reeling. She had to warn Faramir, but how? She did not know who the washerwoman was, and even if Miliani knew and brought her, what chance was there that she would be able to get a message to him in time, if at all? The woman had not seemed willing to deliver even the necklace and note, and that had been weeks ago. If she had been someone who they could reliably use, surely they would have sent a second message this way. Oh, how she wished they had Lordel's buzzard again to relay messages.

Suddenly she felt dizzy and rested her forehead on her palm. She flinched when she felt a touch on her shoulder. “Are you all right?” Inzilbêth asked.

Éowyn shook her head. “I need to lay down.”

Inzilbêth walked her back to her room, looking worried. “Did you take too much sun? Should I send for a healer?”

“No, I just need to rest,” Éowyn said, running her hand across her middle as she felt her child move.

Inzilbêth walked to the door, then gasped and whirled around, shock written across her face. “Oh! I didn't think. He means...” Éowyn nodded as the other rushed back to embrace her. “I'm sorry,” the Umbarian said. “I'll try to talk to him.”

“His mind is set,” Éowyn told her, “and nothing you can say will sway him from it. If anything, you will only raise questions and suspicions. I can hardly blame him from wanting to prevent any more loss of life to his men. But hunting down my husband and our friends is only going to add to the losses, for they will not stop until I am free.”

Inzilbêth drew back and nodded, her face downcast. “But I'll still try to talk to him,” she said firmly. “Perhaps they won't be able to find anyone in the woods.”

“Faramir is a clever woodsman,” Éowyn admitted, “but these are not his woods, either. Any number of things could happen, for good or ill, an solutions unlooked for may appear as well.” But in her heart she was not as confident. This was a great danger, and they would have no way of knowing until it was almost upon them.

Later that evening, after her supper had been brought to her, she was hemming the long edge of a baby blanket when Inzilbêth returned with Dala on her shoulder. The little girl was awake and looking around with wide, dark eyes. The mother sat down and avoided looking Éowyn in the eye. “They're leaving before dawn,” she said in a tone hardly more than a whisper. “They're hoping the morning fog hides them until they get to the trees.”

Éowyn had calmed herself to the point where the fear for Faramir was a dull throbbing in her chest. He had been hunted before, and been a hunter, so even in strange territory his skills lost only some of their effectiveness. He also had friends with him who knew the area, so their knowledge would fill in the weak areas. But despite these somewhat more encouraging thoughts, she did not want to rekindle her anxiety as night fell. She doubted she would get much sleep anyway.

“Do you still plan on going into town?” she asked, not looking up from her sewing.

Inzilbêth hesitated. “Only if you're still willing to watch Dala,” she said. “You can say no. I know tomorrow will be difficult for you.”

Éowyn put down her work. “She will be a welcome distraction. I can handle a fussy baby better than idle waiting with no word from the outside. So go, enjoy your outing. It could be a while before you are able to slip out again.”

Indeed, the next morning came with Adûnakhôr noticeably absent at breakfast and a strange quiet settled on the castle. Neither of the women ate much, and each kept glancing out the window when they thought the other was not watching. When it was time for Inzilbêth to leave, she reluctantly put her daughter in Éowyn's arms. “I miss her already,” she said, “and I haven't even left the room yet.”

“It is something you never really get used to, being gone from them,” Éowyn murmured, shifting her hold on the child. Dala was studying her intently and squirming a little. “But she will be fine, and you will be fine.”

Inzilbêth took her leave, and Éowyn settled back against the pillows to wait for her return, for any news from the hunters, for anything. The minutes stretched on and eventually the baby fell asleep and Éowyn returned to her sewing. But often she found herself staring absently at the row of stitches, the needle in one hand poised to sink into the cloth again but not moving.

Finally, she heard the patter of feet and saw Inzilbêth breeze by the doorway, her light traveling cloak still on. Two of her maids scurried after her. She appeared in the doorway a few moments later, her face pale and troubled. She gave no greeting but immediately went to the cradle by the bed and lifted her daughter to herself, kissing and whispering to the child.

“What is wrong? You look like you have seen a ghost,” Éowyn said.

Inzilbêth reached up to brush at the tears forming in her eyes. “I might as well have,” she said in a choked voice. “I saw Azrahil.”

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun 09 Nov , 2008 4:09 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“Things are too quiet,” stated Khorazîr. It was an hour after sundown, the children had been brought to bed, and all those not on watch-duty sat assembled round the fire, having just finished their supper. There was a general nodding of heads upon his remark.

“Those soldiers,” the Haradan went on, “I do not believe they have no clue where we are hiding. True, some have been raised on dreadful tales about this place, and thus might be afraid of ghosts haunting these hills, but under a stern, determined commander they will lose this fear very quickly. Under enough pressure they will be swarming this cosy hillside ere long, mark my words, and looking at us now, I daresay we are not prepared for their onslaught.”

“We cannot hope to fight them, even with more men,” said Narejde. “When danger draws near, we must be away – again.”

“What if they surround us?” asked Khorazîr, who Faramir knew was not very fond of the option of running from a foe, whatever the circumstance. “Some might slip through, aye, but the rest? What, for example, of the women and children? How do you hope to get them out? Or do you count on the Snake’s mercy?”

“Once those that are to attend the party or otherwise interfere with it have set out for Ihimbra,” fell in Faramir, “the rest should move to another place as well. Or at least some of them. I agree with Khorazîr. It has been uncommonly quiet ever since our arrival here. We have been lucky, it seems, but we must not rely on good fortune. Hanîje and the little ones must relocate to another, safer refuge as soon as possible. You said you knew some, Narejde.”

“We will find something for them,” she nodded, but Faramir thought she looked troubled.

“And we shall prepare this place so that Marek’s men will be sorry for coming here,” muttered Azrahil grimly. It was the first time he had spoken during the meal, and indeed the entire evening. After having been refused attendance of the feast, he had often volunteered for picket-duty, and generally avoided the others’ company, much to his mother’s and step-father’s dismay. And even when around the others, he had hardly spoken, occupying himself with his lioness, or else wandering in dark reveries. Thus, his contribution to the present conversation came as a surprise to the assembly.

“We should have done so sooner,” he continued. “Some of the soldiers are cowards, but Al-Jahmîr’s captains know how to drive their underlings – I doubt much has changed there since I was at Ihimbra. We can sit here and wait for them, or we can try and find out what they are up to.”

“Well, Turgon and Nazîr tried just that, down in Badra,” said Aralas, but Azrahil shook his head impatiently.

“Yes, but how much did they learn? Rahmân may be in charge of this company, but he is only responding to orders. He is not one of those making plans. Plans are made not in Badra, but Ihimbra. If only you would let me go into town as I have suggested so many times,” he added, somewhat accusingly, with a keen glance at his mother, who raised an eyebrow warningly. “I’m the one who best knows his way round the place. I know where the soldiers hang out, and where it’s best to pick up some of their talk. And I know where to hide, and when.”

“Azrahil,” came Narejde’s immediate and sharp reply, “we have had this discussion before. You cannot show our face there anymore, not since people have started looking for you. There is a price on your head, in case you have forgotten, and since you are accounted a blood-traitor and a friend of the tarks few will think twice about handing you over, especially if they can earn a nice reward on the way.”

“They will have to catch me first,” he returned, with stubborn pride which reminded Faramir very much of the young man’s mother. “They are looking for all of us, and I’m sure the reward on his head” – he pointed at Faramir – “is ten times what’s on mine. But he may go and endanger himself. Why not I? I’m not the one Marek wants. He will be glad to be terminally rid of me, sure, but he will not waste a single man to pursue me when they can catch him instead. Or you, for that matter. I don’t fear them, and I’d rather meet them face to face than continuing to lurk in these hills day after day. Why am I the one that is forbidden everything?”

He stared at her accusingly. Pharzi, sensing his rising temper and agitation, raised her head from her paws and gazed at him. He patted her irritably, and she settled down again. “If you think me unable to contribute to this venture, just say so, and send me to bed with the other children. Not one of us is out of danger here. I am the one with the most recent knowledge of town and castle and their population. But instead of giving me tasks you know I’d be good at, you try to keep me out of everything. Why? Do you fear I’d set out on a stupid suicidal mission on my own? I appreciate your worry, but consider that I was forced to look after myself from very early on, without a mother to pamper me, and honestly I think I didn’t do too badly there. So don’t treat me like a child.”

Before Narejde who had unsuccessfully tried to interrupt her son’s heated speech several times was able to utter a reply, Faramir spoke. Tired from a long day of working on the performance with Lôkhî and Mezlâr, with only a few short hours of dream-infested sleep during the hottest hours around noon, he was in no mood to listen to another argument between mother and son. In fact, he was looking forward to a solitary watch up on the hill, without having to talk – his voice being slightly hoarse from making it sound like a woman’s –, without constant reminders that he should sway his hips more and his shoulders less when walking, and most importantly, without broad grins from those witnessing his exertions. Therefore, he sounded stern, almost curt, when he said, “’Tis not our intention to treat you like a child, Azrahil.”

Seeing the young man’s expression, he continued in a more amicable tone, “You have all right to be taken seriously. Rest assured that we are very much aware of your inside knowledge and your skills. In fact, this is one of the reasons why you should try and stay out of trouble until your time comes. We need you for the party, for the distraction – without you and Pharzi, it would work less than half as well. You are of far greater use and indeed worth for us there than as someone to sneak up on your old mates and snatching up bits of their conversations.”

“They were never my mates,” snorted Azrahil darkly.

“This is settled, then,” said Khorazîr, slapping his kneed with a gesture of some finality. “The Dúnadan is right. We need you to set up a plan for the distraction-party. You know where best to stage it.”

Azrahil gazed at him, pondering his stepfather’s words. At length he gave a brief nod, not looking entirely convinced, but at least somewhat mollified. Faramir suspected his urgent wish to go into town to be motivated by some other, more personal matter – to try and meet his beloved. Wisely, the young man desisted from returning to this topic, perhaps also because Narejde was still watching him with a deep frown.

Instead, Aralas cleared his throat. He had already undergone a severe haircut and shaved off his week’s growth of beard, so that in the flickering light of the fire, with his hair seeming darker than usual, Faramir had to admit the ranger had some similarity with himself. “You mentioned you were expecting some more men to arrive soon, Lord Khorazîr. I daresay we need them. But I wonder how they are going to find us. Surely you did not mention our present whereabouts in your message.”

“They have been told to wait at a particular place in the hills east of Ihimbra,” explained the addressed, “and to send men into town to there await our contacts. Rabô has instructions to check the appointed meeting place regularly. We should learn of their arrival with tolerable delay.”

“They have also been instructed to send out scouting parties,” added Narejde, “and have received orders concerning encounters with Marek’s men. They are prepared to expect skirmishes before they find us. Not that they mind.”

“There should also be word from King Elessar ere long,” said Faramir. “I deem it very likely that we will be forced to relocate again, after the party at the latest. If Elessar has landed in Umbar by then, it may be wise to go there, and for once consider ourselves fairly safe and protected. All of us are in need of proper rest, even now. It will be worse in a week’s time, especially if the soldiers assault us here, or the preparations for the feast go awry for some reason.”

“Yes, first we must survive the feast,” cautioned Khorazîr. “And in order to do so, we need to work harder. We can rest in Umbar when all is done – or in Marek’s dungeons, if we are unfortunate. When are you going to set out into town, Dúnadan?”

“Lôkhî said he would be back from his meeting with Numaïr around noon tomorrow. He will want to rest a little after that. Hanîje promised our costumes will be finished by then, so the three of us will leave tomorrow at sundown. Actually, it might not been unwise to have someone else accompany us, to serve as a messenger and return to you the day after with tidings of our venture and general news from town.”

Azrahil raised his head, looking hopeful, but Khorazîr shook his head. “Forget it, son – unless you wish to wear a dress as well.”

The young man glared at him, but then sighed, and even started to grin slightly. “Well, that might be a good way to get in touch with the soldiers, after all.”

“Yes, but you would not like these ‘touches’,” remarked Narejde. “You will have to be careful there, too, Dúnadan. I do not doubt you will draw plenty of looks, and more. I already look forward to the second fitting. Zubejde should have finished the colours for your face by tomorrow. I am sure you will make quite a sight.”

+++

“Turn about once more, will you?” said Hanîje, studying Faramir critically as he did so, illuminated by the bright harsh light of the noon sun. “How does it feel?”

“Tight,” came his short, and very truthful, reply. Seeing her expression, however, he smiled. “Do not worry, ‘tis fine. I cannot recall having ever worn such an elaborate garment before. You really outdid yourself – and in such short time and under these conditions, too. The silk feels light and cool in this heat, and with the lining the bodice does not chafe anymore. I like the hidden pockets in the skirt, too. They will be useful, not just for daggers. And the … padding is not as ridiculously large as I feared after listening to certain gentlemen’s suggestions. In fact, I wish I had a mirror.”

He had seen the dress before donning it, complete now with sleeves, a flowing half-transparent overdress like a surcoat, and a veil made from two parts, one for covering his hair and one for his lower face, linked together by a string of glass-beads that ran along the bridge of his nose. Now he stood arrayed in the garment over a pair of wide, dark-blue trowsers and his ordinary haradaic boots, all of which was hidden underneath the voluminous skirt. Gloves also had been made, because Narejde had rightfully pointed out that his hands and lower arms uncovered by the dress’ sleeves would give away his true gender.

“One can tell you have handled a sword recently,” she had said.

Now she was standing with Hanîje, observing what they had wrought with obvious pride. She had just treated his eyes with powdered charcoal that had been ground into some sheep’s tallow. An almost dried out spring on the hillside had provided red ochre, which together with other ingredients Faramir was rather glad he did not know about (he suspected some kind of beetle) had been used for an intense lip-red. They would have to find some real colours and dyes in town, but for now these would do.

“Your eyebrows could be thinned a little,” mused Narejde, “although they do have a nice shape as they are,” she added quickly when a warning glance from underneath these eyebrows hit her. “We have not got a proper mirror, but you can gaze at your reflection on this blade.” She drew her scimitar and held it so Faramir could see at least parts of himself.

What he descried had little semblance with the reflection he was familiar with, however. “This is amazing,” he muttered at length, breaking a spell of anxious silence. “My hopes for avoiding having to actually wear the dress were already shattered when I saw how skilfully it was being made. But this … I never thought I would look that …”

“Feminine?” Narejde finished his sentence, laughing softly. “I had my doubts as well, I admit. But if you can pull off the acting, especially under stress, I think you have a true chance of fooling the Snake. And imagine, if – when– it becomes known you attended his party in this guise, and he did not recognise you – again …”

“I will have to listen to jokes about my choice of garment for the rest of my life,” he commented with a wry smile, the unbidden image of Falastur of Pelargir uttering a respective remark during a council meeting appearing before his mind’s eye.

She shook her head. “On the contrary, I think this will win you lots of sympathies. People enjoy a good, thrilling tale, especially one with a love-story attached to it – and some humour. And what greater proof of your love for your wife could there be? And what greater humiliation for Marek, should his perception fail him yet again. Oh, I wish I could witness everything.”

“I daresay you will have enough to occupy you that day. I wish I shared your optimism concerning our performance.”

“If only you can keep your emotions in check, and remember what we rehearsed. Come on, some more walking, if you please.” She gave him a mischievous grin. “Now that you actually have some hip.”

+++

Lôkhî arrived later than anticipated, and was welcomed with relief. After resting for some hours and a final talk with the rest of the company, the three set out. They had decided against one of the others accompanying them, so as not to deprive the remainder of their small group of yet another person. Instead, it had been agreed to send either Rabô or Numaïr to relay messages should the need arise, or even one of the pirates.

“I also know where Gazîm and Imrahad and the other two hid our horses and themselves,” said Lôkhî when they were about to leave, all three arrayed in their costumes, but wearing plain and somewhat weathered burnouses as over-garments so as to look convincing as travellers. “We’re going to fetch some steeds there as it won’t look right if we arrived in Ihimbra on foot. After all, we’re supposed to hail from the desert-countries further to the South. We should have tried to get some camels, but unfortunately there’s no time for that. But the two assured me they’ll try and contact you, Lord Khorazîr, and beg your pardon for not doing so earlier. It appears they barely managed to avoid capture, so I guess we can’t really blame them for not showing up earlier.”

“You too be careful,” cautioned Khorazîr, looking troubled, “lest your venture ends before you even set foot into the castle. It is still five days until the party, and much can happen during this time. If we can, Hâmadar and I will contact you there once we get in. Good luck.”

“To you as well,” replied Faramir, secretly glad that their round of farewells was short and to the point. Apprehension had risen constantly throughout the day. Everybody was aware of the risks, and all were wondering now if their little company would ever be assembled again.

Therefore, he appreciated that Mezlâr had already started to walk off, so that with a last nod at the others he followed. Lôkhî exchanged a few words more with Khorazîr, and then departed as well. They did not look back as they climbed the path to the old watchtower on the ridge where Turgon was on duty. Mezlâr had suggested taking the route through the valley as this way they would manage to remain hidden from view for a long stretch of their journey, to avoid the roads, and arrive close to the place where the pack-horses were hidden. There was a downside to this choice of route, however: they would be forced to struggle down the steep slope and cross a virtually pathless forest.

“At least this should give us and our shiny new garments a travel-stained look,” commented Lôkhî wryly as they climbed down towards the tangled forest where the battle had been fought. “And if we’re really lucky, we’ll step into one of those traps Nazîr and your ranger installed there.”

“Your spirits do not seem to be the best,” remarked Faramir, about to reach up and brush some sweat from his face, and only in time remembering what that move would do to the carefully applied colour round his eyes.

“Don’t worry, I’m alright,” replied the small man. “Could have done with more sleep, that’s all. Actually, I’m impressed by what the ladies did to you. And Mezlâr’s and my attire looks perfectly garish and convincing, too. Don’t you think so, Mezlâr?” he called ahead to where the guard was leading the way through the underbrush.

“Garish is the right description,” he answered in his habitual sparing manner. “The colours hurt my eyes.”

“That’s why they’re so fitting,” grinned Lôkhî, having regained his humour, apparently. “Lucky it’s going to be dark soon, eh? I’m convinced we’ll hold our own against the many artists and entertainers who have already arrived in town and are vying for commissions in the inns and on public places.”

“But first we need to get into the town,” Mezlâr pointed out, halting now and gazing at his companions. “Did you not mention there is a curfew? It is getting dark already. The gates will be closed when we arrive. Or do you plan on waiting for the morning before you knock on the doors and ask to be admitted?”

Lôkhî shrugged. “We’ll see how fast we can get there. There is a curfew, yes, but with so much folk arriving from abroad now – guests, deliveries, you name it – the fellows at the gates aren’t as strict as they should be. We’ll get in alright, don’t worry. Don’t forget, there’s a mysterious lady in our company.”

“Careful, master juggler,” said Faramir warningly.

“Are we still going to present him – her – as an Elf?” asked Mezlâr. “Or as this ‘Flower of the Desert’ Hâmadar suggested?”

“Perhaps we should leave it to the people to decide,” suggested Faramir. “I can talk with a desert-accent, and convincingly so, as Hâmadar and Nazîr have attested me. And since I am clad like one of the tribe-women from the regions south-east of Umbâr, we can tell people we hail from there. If they remark on me not really looking like a native, we can always provide them with hints that originally I came from another place, and leave the rest to their imagination. If they believe me to be an Elf, we will not deny it, but neither will we correct them if they assume me to be a Gondorian or some other Northerner, or whatever their fancy suggests to them. That way, I would truly remain mysterious. Moreover, it would prevent us from having to answer too many uncomfortable questions, and construct a background-story for my person which then we would need to maintain down to the smallest detail.”

Lôkhî nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’s the best solution. Whatever we tell people, the tale will grow and change anyway. You’ll end up being an Elf, no matter how the tale starts.”

Faramir smiled under his veil. “As long as I do not end up as the Steward of Gondor disguised as a woman in these tales, I will not complain.”

The two others laughed. “Ah no,” grinned Lôkhî mischievously. “That story will be my personal pleasure to spread once the party is over, and we managed to fool Marek yet again. Perhaps I’ll even write it down and send him a copy for his very own delight.”

“You are such a kind person, Lôkhî,” said Mezlâr gravely, upon with the addressed nodded happily. “Yes, I know.”

+

When the forest had swallowed them altogether, their jesting ceased. Dusk was already gathering underneath the trees, and in the failing light it became increasingly difficult to find a good path. They decided to give the spot where the battle had been fought a wide berth so as not to run the risk of ending up in one of the traps. Even though he was getting used to the tight bodice and the general discomfort of the dress, Faramir was not able to move through the forest as effortlessly as usual. They halted often, both to give him some rest, and to check their surroundings for any sign of pursuit. But only the familiar nightly woodland noises came to their ears.

Around midnight they finally came upon a path leading to the north-east. Mezlâr explained that it ran on to meet the main road to Umbar behind the shoulder of the hill they had been walking towards. “We need to follow it southwards, however, to reach the men with the horses,” said Lôkhî. “They were forced to move about a lot to evade the soldiers, even splitting up into pairs. And they’ll have to move again once we’ve obtained our steeds. I told them to make their way to where the reinforcements are going to arrive.”

They found Gazîm and Imrahad with a part of the small herd of horses in a clearing not far from the path, after a whistled and hooted exchange of signals. “You should move swiftly,” they warned. “Soldiers are patrolling the Umbar road, and smaller parties are swarming the countryside. We’d almost have left as you didn’t show up at the appointed time.”

“We could not move as swiftly as anticipated,” explained Lôkhî as he shortened the stirrups on his horse, glancing pointedly at Faramir.

Gazîm and Imrahad exchanged a look. Imrahad stepped over to Lôkhî. “That’s not our Lady Narejde, is it?” he inquired in a low voice. “I’ve never seen her in a dress before. Is it this guardsman’s wife you wanted to rescue? We don’t have a side-saddle, I’m afraid.”

“No problem, she’ll manage without,” Lôkhî assured him with a grin. “But you could be a gentleman and help her with mounting. It’s tricky with that dress, you see.”

Suspecting that Lôkhî had not informed the two about who would be accompanying him, and that the small man was now using the opportunity for a first real test of the disguise’s credibility, Faramir decided to play along, allowing Imrahad to gallantly assist him, and even thanking him with a few words.

“Now that was encouraging, wasn’t it?” commented Lôkhî happily as they urged their horses into a light trot along the path. “Imrahad’s one of those fellows with quite a reputation with the ladies, and he didn’t seem to suspect anything strange about you. Good work.”

“Well, it was dark,” replied Faramir modestly, but inwardly pleased about this successful first testing of his disguise.

+++

The second test turned out to be more of a challenge. By some stroke of luck, their nightly journey towards Ihimbra had remained undisturbed. Even on the main road they had not encountered a patrol, despite hearing the sounds of men and horses moving about in the distance. As they neared the town proper, passing out of the forest down a long gentle slope studded with outlying farms surrounded by meadows and orchards and well-tilled fields, they found the eastern gate brightly illuminated despite the early hour, and a group of travellers waiting to be admitted. There were several carts and wains and a company of wealthy horsemen with a small host of guards and pack-animals, as well as two tired-looking, dusty errand-riders on exhausted horses. They seemed put out by the delay caused by the soldiers checking the cargo of the first group.

Placing themselves in the queue, Faramir and his companions strained to overhear the conversations, but most travellers were quiet: having apparently journeyed all night, they were eager to be admitted beyond the high walls and reach their accommodation. But the soldiers and ordinary watchmen were taking their time, inquiring after every piece of cargo they withdrew from the wains, and questioning the arrivals closely about their place of departure, and their exact purpose and destination within the town walls. Also, there were inquiries about outlaws, neither of the travellers had encountered, however. Faramir was certain that these “bandits” the soldiers referred to were in truth supposed to be himself and his companions. All received a stern reprimand for arriving at such an hour, and were reminded of the curfew.

“Get yourselves inside, and stay out of trouble,” the commanding officer of the soldiers snarled. “We don’t want to see any of you out after dark in the days to come, understood? This is a one-time exception.”

When finally the soldiers turned their attention to the “entertainers”, Faramir was content to leave the talking to Lôkhî, who told the story they had invented as naturally as if they had truly undertaken a journey from the desert-lands. He tried to keep his face impassive when one of the guards held up a torch to get a better glance of his features.

“So, you’re here for the feast, are you?” the captain asked. “Heard about it in Umbar, right? I didn’t know word has spread so far already.”

“You have no idea, master,” said Lôkhî in a thick Haradaic accent.

“What’s it you perform, then? Does she dance or what? I’ve heard about desert-women doing all kinds of strange dances.”

“Ah yes, I know which ones you mean,” replied Lôkhî with a slight grin. “We had a companion who did that sort of thing, you know, the ones with veils and daggers and scanty clothing. But unfortunately she eloped with a guardsman in Umbar, the faithless thing. Our lady here only dances on very special occasions. Her skills lie elsewhere, you see. She is a renowned fortune-teller, and moreover the fearless partner of the Master of the Flying Daggers here.” Mezlâr bowed gracefully. “When you have some time off these days, do come and watch our performance.”

“Well, you could earn your entrance at so impertinent a time of night by giving us a little performance here and now,” said the guard, upon which his companions nodded eagerly. “Help the lady from her horse,” the officer went on, to one of his underlings, “so that she can show her ‘special skills’.”

There was nothing but to fall in with this request. “We can’t do the fortune-telling, as this needs some proper setting up,” apologised Lôkhî, “but we can show you some of our other stuff. Throw me those torches, if you please, one after another.”

The soldiers, obviously glad about the break in routine, gathered round, with even more men looking down from the watchtowers to both sides of the gates, and the battlements. Soon Lôkhî was juggling quite expertly with five torches, and after he was finished and space was cleared for Mezlâr and Faramir in front of the stout wooden gates, he conjured up coins and small personal items from behind the guards’ ears or out of their uniforms, to general amusement. Faramir had no time to marvel about his obvious skills as a pick-pocket, because his and Mezlâr’s turn was imminent.

They had rehearsed the act several times, therefore he had come to trust Khorazîr’s guard, who even when distracted by sudden noises or movements in the background had not missed a single throw, nevertheless he could not hide a certain anxiety. The flickering light of the torches and the single lamp under the gate-arch only cast a dim, unsteady illumination, which was obscured even further by the many nightly insects fluttering round the lights. Also, he was aware of the many glances upon him as slowly and as gracefully and womanlike as he could contrive he walked over to the closed half of the gate and stood with his back to it.

Mezlâr had readied his first dagger by the time Faramir had positioned himself, throwing it almost immediately, to an excited murmur from the soldiers. The slender blade hit the wood next to Faramir’s shoulder. Three more followed in quick succession, a fifth burying itself less than an inch above his head.

The soldiers were impressed, clapping enthusiastically and whistling. “Can he do it with his eyes covered?” asked one. Faramir and Mezlâr exchanged a surprised glance. The guard gave the smallest of nods, and Faramir drew a deep breath. Naturally, they had not rehearsed that bit. But soldiers were chatty creatures. If they managed to impress them here and now, and word of their performance made the round in town, their invitation to the party would be all the more probable. But what if Lôkhî missed, and missed severely ...

“Certainly,” Mezlâr replied calmly, bowing, and nodding again at Faramir, who withdrew the daggers from the wood and returned to his companion to hand them over. “I have done this before,” he hissed under his breath.

“Do not miss,” replied Faramir in the softest of whispers, before returning to the gate.
When he had positioned himself, Lôkhî stepped over to Mezlâr to cover his eyes with a silken scarf he used for his magic tricks. The soldiers’ excited murmur died down to expectant silence.

Faramir’s chest felt tight and constricted, which had nothing to do with the bodice for once. But he had no more time for fear. In quick succession, the daggers hit the woodwork next to him, again outlining his head and shoulders, without even pinning his veil or sleeves to the gate.

The soldiers broke into loud applause, one even stepping over to Mezlâr to clap his shoulder, and Faramir let out the breath he had held. Again he withdrew the daggers, hoping their performance had been sufficient now to buy their entry.

“Now that’s one brave lady,” the guard-captain called to his men, who cheered and clapped. “You may enter. Where are you staying?” Lôkhî gave him the name of an inn, which the guardsman noted down on a list. “Be reminded to stay out of trouble and heed the curfew,” the captain went on sternly as the three mounted again. “We’ll check on you one of these days, and perhaps see more of your act. And your special dance, my lady,” he added with a wink at Faramir, who shook his head.

“Your wife would not appreciate that,” he replied in a soft voice, using the same accent as Lôkhî. The captain took a step back, gazing at him surprisedly. “How do you know I’m married?” he asked suspiciously.

Faramir gave a slight shrug. “I do not only read the future, but also the present,” he said mysteriously. “I know those things.”

The captain and the other soldiers looked at him in awe. “We’ll definitely pay you a visit at your accommodation, to learn more about our futures. Off you go, now.”

Glad about the dismissal, the three urged their horses through the gate, which was shut behind them. As they followed a broad, paved road Faramir recognised from the maps he had seen of the town, and which wound down to the harbour, Lôkhî gave a low whistle. “Now that’s what I call a test. How on earth did you manage this with your eyes covered, Mezlâr?”

“I did,” the other returned simply, but added, “I need to aim only once, the rest my arms and hands do. That is it.”

“Amazing. And you, ‘lady’, you’ve shown quite some nerve. Weren’t you afraid?”

Faramir smiled wryly underneath his veil. “More than you can imagine.”

“What interests me is how you knew the captain was married,” remarked Mezlâr. “A lucky guess?”

“Not entirely,” replied Faramir. “There were several signs about his person pointing to this conclusion. The state of his clothes which looked like they were being looked after regularly by someone who knows how the wash and darn, the fact he wore a lady’s token on the heft of his sword, and other things. But there was some guesswork involved as well. There always is.”

“Well, it’d be interesting to hear what you’re going to tell these guys about their futures,” stated Lôkhî with a grin.

Faramir shrugged. “Just the truth, of course. I shall tell them their futures are going to be troubled and indeed short if they continue to serve the Snake.”

+++

Heartened by the successful testing of their disguise and performance, and moreover by the quality of their accommodation which was not as disreputable as Faramir had feared according to Lôkhî’s descriptions, they spent the following two days performing regularly on several of the squares during daytime, and large inner court-yards of inns and taverns during the evenings. As the little man had mentioned, curfew was not enforced as strictly as Al-Jahmîr would have it. Surely, there were many soldiers patrolling the place, especially after sundown, but sooner or later many of them would get “delayed” at an inn where there was an important matter to settle. There were fights and arguments indeed. A steady stream of strangers was arriving every day, which resulted in quarrels about cargo and accommodation between members of different clans or tribes, or the personal guards of merchants and other arrivals.

In the morning after their arrival the threesome secretly met with Rabô and Numaïr, the latter of whom was dispatched to inform those in the camp about what had befallen on the journey, and to gather news from the rest of the company. Also, the two informed the newcomers about the latest news and rumours that were making the round in town. “There are some important folks about to arrive in the next couple of days,” said Rabô. “Warlords from the South, and some influencial lords from Umbar with their retinue. Most are going to be accommodated at the castle, but I’ve heard at several inns that space had to be cleared to house some of the guards and servants. Should be a good source of information, those people. Also, there’s a great number of artists and performers already in town. A fellow named Ranak is responsible for organising the entertainments at the party, and he’s been seen in town with his assistant, watching performances and picking out folks to attend the party. Make sure you impress him. He’s a portly fellow with a brown face and curiously curled dark hair, and with two golden teeth in his broad smile. You’ll recognise him when you see him. He’s quite a sight.”

+

Ranak had not made an appearance at one of their acts, nevertheless the three “entertainers” had quickly gained some reputation, so that on the second day of their stay at Ihimbra, they did not have to travel through town anymore, but put up on the large and busy market-square in front of their inn, where people would seek them out to either have their fortune told by “that strange desert-lady”, or watch their performance. They even earned some considerable money during that time, so that on the second evening when they had finally sought out their room in the privacy of which Faramir was relieved off dress and face-paint, Lôkhî suggested chestfully that they could use this money to pay the bounty on the Snake’s head, should anybody come and claim it.

They had used their performances to spread the word that down in Umbar they had encountered rumours of the Steward of Gondor having put a high price on Al-Jahmîr’s head, at least as high as the bounty the lord of Ihimbra had put on the Dúnadan’s. In addition, they had spread a number of other tales about the Gondorian they supposedly had picked up on their journeys. Faramir suspected some of the people attended their performances to listen to the gossip instead of watching the act, and he was happy to indulge them. He was surprised about people’s interest in the matter, and indeed their often voiced sympathy for the Steward and his situation.

“It’s not right,” a burly fishmonger who had seen their performance twice already told Faramir while sitting opposite him in the small, light tent they had set up for the ‘fortune-teller’, staring fascinatedly but with apprehension at the assortment of curious stones and sea-shells Faramir had cast on the table between them. “If I were him, I’d put every bounty-hunter in all of Harad on the man who’d stolen my wife. Hope he gets her back, despite him being a tark and everything. Well, what do them stones say about my business? Should I buy this warehouse or not?”

As rehearsed, Faramir made a show of consulting the cast of shells and pebbles, at the same time recalling what he had seen and learned about this particular man in the past days. He asked some mysterious-sounding but in truth very straightforward questions about the fishmonger’s current situation, and then counselled him as best he could. He had realised that many people who came to have their futures read to them had very realistic problems and worries, and were looking rather for a chance to talk about those than expecting a shiny fate to be described to them. The fact that he was able to tell them many things about themselves he had either picked up in town or spotted about their person consolidated the awe and respect they held him in – and the surprising trust in his proclamations.

Also, he realised he was more and more enjoying the ‘act’. He still disliked having to wear the dress and face-paint, despite getting more and more used to the tight bodice, but at the same time he was pleased about the opportunity to actually help people in need of counsel and advice. Those who were worried about what would happen once “the tarks arrived” – and there were many of those –, he tried to ease by assuring them that the Steward was not after punishing the population, only the Snake and his allies. There would be no war, he promised, knowing that he would do his utmost to prevent just that. Yet the did not make light of the situation, either. “Your lord is in serious trouble,” he told people repeatedly, “and he cannot expect the tarks to deal with him leniently. His future is so black that it scares me, and those who aid him still will be enmeshed in his doom and join him in his fall.”

Some of the soldiers from the gate sought them out indeed, on the sixth of Úrimë, three days prior to the party. From them they learned that early in the morning, before the first light, a well-armed company had left the town led by Al-Jahmîr’s most formidable captain, a man called Aurens the soldiers referred to with obvious respect and even fear. Even more remarkably, the second leader of the small host had been the lord’s son himself. The soldiers had not been informed about the purpose of the venture, but, as their captain proclaimed with obvious glee, they were supposed to put an end to those filthy outlaws in the woods who in the past week had slain so many good men.

The entertainers had received these tidings with dismay. They had heard no word from their companions, as Numaïr had not yet returned from his errand. An emergency meeting with Rabô was called, who set out to follow the soldiers immediately. “Be very careful,” warned Faramir. “They must not catch you. If you can, warn our friends. I am confident they will have relocated already. And they are very watchful. But there is no denying the seriousness of the situation.”

+

In consequence, their performance that morning was somewhat less cheerful, all three worrying about their companions out in the hills. Tension increased with every hour, until Mezlâr almost missed a throw, pinning Faramir’s sleeve to the wooden board and scarcely avoiding cutting his arm. They called a break after that. But as they were about to withdraw to their room, there was some murmur, and the crowds on the busy market square parted to allow passage to an impressive figure. The man was almost as wide as he was tall, his mighty bulk swathed in expensive silks cut in the latest fashion, their colours almost as bright and garish as Lôkhî’s and Mezlâr’s costumes. Golden earrings were glinting under his turban, which was decorated with a swaying peacock’s feather in front. A small, pale assistant hurried after him, carrying all sorts of papers.

“You there,” the portly man called to the three, in a voice throbbing with authority. “I heard your performance is a good one, and that you wish to show it at Lord Al-Jahmîr’s feast. Let’s see what you can do, then. And don’t leave out the thrilling part, mind you,” he added with a grin that made the golden teeth blink in the bright sunlight. The crowd began to cheer. Only once Mezlâr had repeated the act with covered eyes, but he had already become famous for it, and had successfully outdone two other knife-throwers who had vied for a good place to perform on the square.

Somewhat more nervous than usual, the three went through their routines, under the keen and appraising eyes of Ranak, whose sweaty face which now and again he dabbed with a silk handkerchief showed no indication whether he liked what he saw or not. When the crowd broke into loud applause after Mezlâr’s most dangerous act, he only signed to his assistant to note something down on one of the long lists the young man was carrying.

The cheering and clapping died down as people were watching the stout man expectantly for his final verdict. He did not indulge them, however, but waved to Faramir to come over. “You’re the fortune-teller? Right, then, tell me a little about my fortunes.” Faramir inclined his head and beckoned him to follow inside the tent. To distract the crowd, Lôkhî began to juggle again.

“You can leave out the mysterious bit,” said Ranak as puffing and wheezing, he took a seat on the pillows. “It’s just a lot of mumbo-jumbo to impress these halfwits. I’ve seen it countless times before, and it doesn’t fool me. Still, people told me you really do read something in them, and counsel them accordingly. How do you do it?”

“You do not expect me to tell you the secret of my trade, do you?” returned Faramir quietly.

Ranak seemed taken aback by this reply, but then his gold teeth glinted as he grinned. “Ah, you know your business. Well, tell me something about myself I haven’t heard before.”

Faramir inclined his head again, smiling slightly behind his veil, and did so. Knowing that most likely there would be an encounter with the great organiser, he had during the previous days kept his ears wide open whenever Ranak’s name had been mentioned, and thus had gathered a considerable amount of information about him. It had been somewhat tricky to filter truth from gossip, but apparently he had done so successfully, for when he was finished, Ranak gave him a long, keen glance from narrowed eyes.

“Whoever you are,” the stout man said thoughtfully after a spell of silence, “you’re not one of those desert-rats. You dress and talk like them, but there’s something strange about you. Still, you seem to know your trade. You will perform at the party. Present yourselves at the castle-gates on the ninth. Second hour after sunrise, sharp.”

With that, he struggled to his feet and left the tent. Faramir drew a deep breath, resisting the temptation to rub his eyes. Outside, he heard Ranak declare that the threesome had been admitted to the feast, to more cheering and clapping. Mezlâr joined him in the tent. “Good work, whatever you did to this peacock.”

“From you, too,” said Faramir. “Let us hope you are not going to miss at the party, either.”

Mezlâr smiled broadly. “I told you before, I never miss.”

+

Despite their success with Ranak, anxiety for their companions continued to weigh on the three throughout the day, increasing with every hour. Apparently the hunters had not returned, either, for no word of the outcome of their venture could be heard in town. Finally, in the early evening when they had finished their last performance for the day and were settling for dinner under the fig-trees in the inn’s inner court-yard, a boy arrived bearing a message. They had seen the lad before: he was a street-urchin and one of Rabô’s messengers. “Master and another have returned,” he said. “Told me to tell you to meet them at the Crooked Moon down in Pearl Street. They’re waiting there.”

“The Crooked Moon, eh?” said Lôkhî when the boy had hurried off with a coin in his brown hands, shaking his head. “Must have been Rabô’s idea. That’s one of those places I’m amazed the soldiers haven’t shut down entirely. We’ll have a look there after dinner. But you should stay here,” he addressed Faramir. “It’s no place for a lady, at least not for one who values her reputation.”

“You be careful, too, and return before curfew,” cautioned Faramir.

“I have no intention of spending longer there than needs be,” stated Lôkhî with a laugh. “It’s not that you can safely drink anything they offer.”

+

After the meal Faramir withdrew to their room. Even though he was tempted to get out of the dress already, he resisted the urge. Opening the small, latticed window he sat down next to it, watching life on the market-square decrease slowly as merchants were taking down their stalls for the night and closing their shops. A company of watchmen went round to check if the square had been left in an orderly fashion, chasing away the last stragglers, mostly beggars who were looking for leftover fruit and vegetables. It was impossible to see the castle from the window, as it faced west- instead of southward, and he mourned this fact.

The past days had been very busy and exhausting. In the evenings, he had more or less collapsed on his bed and slept the night through. Now was the first time he truly had time to think again. To worry, too. About his friends out in the forest, and about Éowyn. He realised with a pang of guilt that he had thought less about her in the previous days than before. And about his boys, back home in Gondor. They seemed so incredibly remote now. What would they say if they saw him in this attire? Would they recognise him? So far, his disguise seemed to have fooled everybody. Some, like Ranak, might have found something strange about his person, but he doubted anybody had suspected that there was no woman inside the dress. What would Éowyn’s reaction be when she saw him at the feast? Now that their attendance there seemed secured, he could begin to worry about how to try and contact her without blowing their disguise.

Movement on the square caught his attention. The place was already in deep shadow as the sun had gone down into the sea beyond the rows of houses. In some, windows were lit with lamps and candles. A dark figure was walking across the square, stealthily, keeping to the shadows. Drawing close to the pillared porch of one of the larger merchant-houses, it halted, looking around. Faramir could not recognise the face as the person had hidden it with a scarf and head-dress, but he thought the figure was gazing in his direction for a moment, although he was rather sure he was not discernable in the dark room, especially not from a distance. The figure set in motion again, approaching the inn but not making for the main entrance.

Faramir knew that apart from the main gate leading into the inner court-yard, there were two small side-entrances, both leading into narrow alleys. One was hardly used, the other usually being frequented by the maids and kitchen-staff working at the inn. Checking the figure’s direction one last time, he decided to try the lesser used door. Donning his travelling cloak and making sure he carried the daggers hidden inside his dress, he slipped out of the room.

On the day of their arrival the three entertainers had made sure to get to know every corridor and passageway of their accommodation, in the case they were forced to escape from the place. This knowledge now helped Faramir as swiftly he made his way to the older part of the large house. Here many rooms were being refurbished at the moment and thus not used by guests. The workmen had left for the night, and the entire wing seemed deserted. Upon reaching the corridor leading up to the small door that opened onto the alley, he halted, listening. Someone was trying to open it. Readying his dagger, he withdrew round a corner, waiting.

Soon the door opened, and as he had guessed, the dark figure slipped in, closing the door behind it so that the corridor was almost completely dark. Breathing only shallowly, Faramir listened to the footsteps approaching cautiously. When the other had almost reached him, and Faramir was ready to grab and disarm him, suddenly he heard a thud and a low curse. The figure had stumbled over something lying on the floor.

“Azrahil, is that you?” Faramir asked surprisedly. The figure froze, and there was the sound of a blade being drawn.

“Dúnadan?” came the whispered reply. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same. What made you come into town? And what brings you to this very inn?”

“I was looking for you,” replied the young man, his voice less tense now. He sheathed his sword again. “To bring tidings.”

Faramir stepped round the corner. “How did you know where to find us? Has Numaïr reached you then?”

“Yes, he arrived two days ago, when we were about to leave the camp.”

“Ah, so you abandoned it,” said Faramir with relief. “Good. Early this morning a company of soldiers set out to hunt for us, led by Adûnakhor and a fellow named Aurens. Nobody knew about their exact direction, but I feared they were going south-east towards Badra.”

“I heard about it in town today. Aurens is a sharp fellow. But if they search the tomb they will find little to their liking there. We split up. Hanîje and her children were brought to the new camp where your rangers have settled now.”

“You mean Mablung has arrived?”

“Yes, he and his company and some of Khorazîr’s men came yesterday. Quite a large company altogether, with provisions and everything. We are well-equipped and protected now. Khorazîr dispatched some groups of rangers into the woods, and about three dozen returned to the area round the tomb. We didn’t know about Aurens and Adûnakhor then, but we suspected all along there would be trouble. We reckoned it would come from Badra, rather. So they’re waiting for the hunting-party now – well, perhaps by now there has actually been some fighting. I accompanied Dirar and the grandmother into town where they applied for a position as cook and apprentice up at the castle. I think they got in alright. I heard about you, too, and that Ranak has accepted you. Good work.”

“It was still dangerous for you to come here,” Faramir reproved him.

“Yes, it was,” Azrahil agreed, to the other’s surprise, and in a strangely tense voice. “I should not have come.”

“What happened?” asked Faramir with some alarm.

“Nothing to endanger our plans,” the other returned quickly. “Everything is going fine there, and I’m going to return to the others tonight to prepare the distraction.”

“You met your girl?” inquired Faramir gently.

Azrahil’s sigh was reply enough. “It was a mistake,” he stated darkly.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Fri 26 Dec , 2008 9:27 am 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“This sounds like a tale of some length,” said Faramir. “We must not stay here, at least not in the corridor. There are some unoccupied rooms nearby where we should be undisturbed.”

Azrahil seemed to approve of the suggestion, and together they cautiously passed along the corridor until Faramir indicated a door standing a little ajar. They stepped inside, and were met by the smell of fresh whitewash. Apparently the walls had just been treated with it, which meant that despite the dim illumination filtering in through the half-barred lattice-work from the square outside which was being lit by some of the adjacent windows, the two men could finally see more of each other than featureless silhouettes.

Stepping over to the window, Faramir peered out carefully. “We must be quiet,” he cautioned in a low voice. “I cannot see anybody on the square, but that does not rule out people violating the curfew. And by my reckoning, we have about half an hour until the soldiers patrolling the square will pay their regular evening visit to the inn. Once they are inside, you should be on your way. I hope you have not been followed.”

Azrahil snorted. “I know my way round this town,” he stated.

Sensing his troubled mood, Faramir deciding against commenting on the young man’s almost haughty remark. Returning to Azrahil to ensure their voices could be kept low, “What happened?” he inquired sympathetically.

Azrahil sighed again, lowering his hood and running a hand through his hair. “Well, what happened …,” he began slowly, as if having to piece together memories. “As I said, I had accompanied Zubejde and Dirar to the castle. In front of the gates there was a throng of people of all kinds and trades, hoping to gain admittance. The chief cook and other high-ranking kitchen staff were selecting people to join them for the preparations of the feast. There was an increased number of guards and soldiers, too, to make sure things proceeded peacefully. I was just about to leave when I saw two women with one of the household guards skirting the throng and making their way into town. I didn’t see their faces as they wore hooded cloaks, but the fact they had one of those guards with them struck me as odd, and I decided to follow.

“They steered towards the central market, where I almost lost them because there were so many people about, and I did not dare to draw close so as not to get spotted. Then, while the women were looking at some candle-maker’s goods, I happened to catch a glance of their faces. One I didn’t know – I think she was only a maid or servant. But the other …”

He sighed, running another hand through his hair. “She looked different from my memories of her,” he continued softly. “Older and less girlish, but also more beautiful. Yet there were lines on her face which shouldn’t be there, and which told me she was troubled by something. And the shadows under her eyes spoke of too little sleep. And yet she was more beautiful than I remembered. I think I simply stared at her for quite a long time. She didn’t see me, which was just as well, as I needed time to think of a plan to speak with her without her maid and the bloody guard around. In the end a small street-urchin came to my aid by nicking fruit from a nearby stall. The owner called to the guard to catch the thief, the maid was distracted by the commotion, and I was able to call Inzi softly. At first she didn’t recognise me, I think. And when she did …”

In the dim illumination, his features seemed to darken even more. “I don’t know what I should have expected,” he muttered. “Part of me had always been hoping for a joyous reunion, I guess. The stupid part,” he added contemptuously. “She was shocked to see me, really shocked. Of course she had not reckoned with it, it had come as an utter surprise, but still … At least she saw the necessity to talk. Her companions were occupied, so she slipped away into a narrow alley, beckoning to me to follow.”

He gave a short, humourless laugh. “And there we stood in front of each other, neither knowing how to begin a conversation. At length she said something like it was dangerous for me to come into town. I couldn’t tell her of my reason for coming, of course, so I think I replied something about having to gather information. We didn’t talk that much, at first, you know, just stared at the other. It was worse than awkward. And then suddenly, like a dam breaking, she started apologising, and telling me about her marriage, and her husband, and her daughter, and I just stood there like an idiot, listening to things I didn’t want to hear, realising that what I had secretly hoped, that she hated her new life and especially her husband – it was not true. I think she truly loves him, and she adores her baby.”

There was so much bitterness in his voice that Faramir put a hand to his shoulder and squeezed it soothingly. Azrahil stiffened, and made a move as if to brush the hand away, but then he simply hung his head and shoulder dejectedly.

“Would you rather have her be unhappy in the life she did not choose for herself?” Faramir inquired gently.

Azrahil gave a faint shrug, but then obviously steeling himself, he drew a deep breath. “Of course not,” he muttered, and Faramir knew it cost him to make that admittance, especially to himself. “I was jealous. I am still, there’s no use denying it. I should have been the one she referred to so, with love and worry for his return. She did imply she had feelings for me still, but what good, she said, were they, when I was out in the woods being hunted by her very husband, and likely to perish soon? I think she was trying to apologise for what happened, although it hadn’t been her fault. Still, I couldn’t help feeling angry at her words. I asked her if she would rather have her husband succeed, or us, and she was silent at that.”

“And what indeed should she have answered, in a situation like hers?” asked Faramir gravely.

“I know I was being unjust. I even knew it back then. I hurt her, and I’m sorry for it, more than you can imagine. But I just felt so hurt myself. This was not what I had hoped for. I was sorely disappointed. Disappointed? Hah, worse, far worse. There is no word for how I felt.” He snorted. “You know, she even said she loved me still, but in the very next sentence asked what good that would be to either of us in the current situation. I have been such a bloody fool, all the time!”

He fell silent, walking over to the window to gaze out. After a moment, Faramir followed him. “Azrahil,” he began quietly, “I know you dislike taking other people’s advice – in general, and in this matter in particular. And perhaps my advice is even less welcome, since all of you are enduring so much because of me and Éowyn. But as hard as it sounds, you must try and move on. Inzilbêth may never cease loving you, but she also loves her husband and especially her child. Naturally, at least when it comes to the baby. In her interest and your own, set her free, for even if Adûnakhor fell in this struggle, I do not believe you two would ever be joined happily. There is too much standing between you now, and you are not doing yourselves a favour by reminiscing in old times.” He held up a hand to forestall Azrahil who had been about to interrupt.

“I know that the same counsel could be applied to myself right now, and Éowyn, although I daresay our situation is somewhat different still. I remember us talking about this before, back in the quarry. You told me then that if Inzilbêth chose to remain with her husband, you would let her go.”

“I said that, didn’t I?” said Azrahil without looking at him. He ran a hand along the freshly painted wall, gazing absently at the white chalk stains on his fingers.

Faramir nodded. “Do you not believe she has made her choice – despite it being a hard and bitter one for both you?”

Azrahil continued to silently gaze at his hands. He swallowed hard. “I cannot just switch it off,” he said quietly.

“No, you cannot. And neither can she. But she is out of your reach now. Neither of us can foresee how things are going to turn out, but you know now that her priorities lie with her family now. Adûnakhor is our enemy, yet this should not encourage you to engage in some personal feud only because he married your beloved. As far as I know, he did not arrange it. His father and her father did. Always keep in mind that you would hurt Inzilbêth by hurting him, and rob your love’s daughter of a father by killing him.”

“She told me to look after myself,” Azrahil muttered, his voice hoarse. Again he swallowed hard. Faramir gave him a sympathetic glance. The young man’s sadness touched him, but what heartening advice should he give him to lighten his mood? There was none. He could only hope Azrahil would weather the disappointment, and in time get over it.

Suddenly forcing himself out of his darkness, Azrahil’s expression changed. “She also told me that your wife is living with them now, in their quarters. She didn’t go into detail, but from what I gathered it seems she had been put into prison before, and Adûnakhôr” – Faramir noted how he took an effort to utter the Snake’s son’s name evenly, without contempt – “put in a word on her account with his thrice-cursed father.”

“Éowyn is well?” asked Faramir quickly, alarmed by the mention of imprisonment. Azrahil’s grief had caused him to temporarily forget his own worries, which now, however, caught up with him with all might. Khorazîr and Narejde had described the dungeons at Ihimbra enough for a shiver of dread to trickle down his spine at the thought of Éowyn languishing in the dark cells. “And our baby?”

Azrahil shrugged. “Inzi did not say, but I think she is. She would have mentioned if things were otherwise. We didn’t have much time to talk, you see. Soon her guard and maid started looking for her, and we parted. I was tempted to follow her, but she hurried back to the castle. The rest of the afternoon I spent in town listening to talk, but truth to tell I don’t recall much of what I heard, and then I came here.”

“And you should leave now,” said Faramir, gazing out of the window. “The guards have just entered the inn. Thank you for coming here, Azrahil. You can tell the others that with us everything has been going according to plan so far. And forgive my somewhat stern words to you concerning Inzilbêth. I —”

Azrahil shook his head and waved a hand, not quite able to hide the effort it cost him to appear so aloof and unconcerned of a sudden. “You were right,” he said. “And I guess I’ve known it all along. It’s just going to take me a while to finally accept it. Farewell for now, and good luck at the party.”

“For you as well,” replied Faramir, gazing concernedly after the young man as he slipped out of the room. When Azrahil had made it out into the street again, Faramir returned to their room. He had not long arrived there and begun to finally free himself of the dress when Lôkhî and Mezlâr came back.

“We had to wait for the soldiers to alight at the inn to cross the square,” explained the small man. “The meeting with Rabô and Numaïr was quick. They didn’t have much to tell. The hunters haven’t returned yet. I told them to find themselves nice spots near the castle-gates to await their return, and open their ears wide for any gossip making the round.”

“The hunters are going to meet with resistance, and perhaps a nasty surprise, even,” said Faramir, and told the others of his meeting with Azrahil. The news of the reinforcements’ arrival were met with relief, but Azrahil’s misfortune with his sweetheart caused frowns and worried looks.

Lôkhî shook his head after Faramir had finished. “That’s one unlucky lad, Azrahil is,” he observed sympathetically. “Even trying to be noble now and accepting her choice.”

“Would you prefer if he dashed off to challenge Adûnakhôr to single combat?” inquired Faramir, bending over the washing bowl and scrubbing his face to get rid of the colour, cursing under his breath when some of the khol got into his eyes.

“Well, that at least might make him feel better,” mused Lôkhî, not entirely seriously. “And if he waited for the party to launch his attack, we would have a prime distraction. Still, I daresay we’re lucky it didn’t hit him entirely unprepared, otherwise we’d be seeing him engaging in mischief, mark my words.

“Like taking to the bottle, or some other nasty stuff?” put in Mezlâr from his seat on the windowsill – his favourite lookout in the evenings, as it commanded a good view over the square and the streets and alleys branching off.

“Who knows?” replied Lôkhî. “Keeping it all inside him isn’t healthy. One day he’ll explode – just like someone else I know who did that so very impressively not long ago.” He grinned at Faramir who gave him a sharp glance over his shoulder.

“Oh, and speaking of bottles, we brought something to celebrate our success with Ranak today.” He reached inside his garment and produced a sealed bottle of dark and still somewhat dusty glass.

“I thought the drinks in the Crooked Moon were not for human consumption,” mused Faramir, drying his face in a towel, fearing that, as usual, some of the colour would remain behind as he had not yet found a way to rid himself completely of the black dye in the evenings.

“Ah, this is not from the Crooked Moon – alas, no! This is some of the wine our landlord here keeps for his very best guests. We’ve been doing well so far financially. Thought we could afford a little treat.”

“Well, perhaps we should not celebrate before we have attended the party, and survived it,” objected Faramir thoughtfully. “We have not even set foot inside the castle yet, and much can still go awry ere we do – not to mention what may go wrong at the feast itself.”

“Come on, we have successfully managed the first stage,” said Lôkhî cheerfully, handing the bottle to Mezlâr who got out a dagger to open the sealed cork. Meanwhile, the small man searched his many-pocketed garments for cups, which apparently he had acquired as well. “Don’t worry too much. Things will work out fine, you’ll see. Ah, here we are.”

He brought forth three small pewter cups which he set on the window-sill for Mezlâr to fill. “This really appears to be good stuff,” he said appreciatively after sniffing the dark-red liquid. “From the vineyards south of Umbar. Say what you like about folks down there. If there’s one thing they’re knowledgeable of, it’s how to make good wine. And those little cakes made from dried seaweed. I could kill for those.”

Faramir donned a shirt and joined the others at the window, where Lôkhî handed him a cup.

“To the Snake’s downfall,” said Mezlâr gravely, raising his cup. The two others joined in the toast. The wine was good indeed, much headier and sweeter than Gondorian wines, and quite strong, too.

Therefore, “I cannot afford a hangover tomorrow,” explained Mezlâr his refusal of a second cup. “I need to be fully concentrated, or else our lady here might have reason to be wroth with me.”

“The lady also needs to concentrate,” said Faramir, by now used to the constant mild teases and remarks about his disguise. “We should keep the rest for after the feast – unless Lôkhî wants to finish the bottle.”

At this Mezlâr laughed. “That would not be advisable. We would have to do without him tomorrow – and likely the day after, too – as he cannot take much of this stuff.”

Lôkhî only shrugged and grinned. “Yes, because unlike others, I was raised on milk as a lad.”

An amicable banter ensued between the two Southrons about their respective upbringings. Faramir listened and smiled, quite enjoying the relaxed atmosphere in which even grave and usually quiet Mezlâr displayed some humour. It felt good after the constant tension and danger of the past weeks to be able to banish thoughts about the future, if only for a short while.

+++

Tension returned soon enough, however. In the days up to the party, the threesome resolved to stage only one performance a day, in the early evening, to keep in practise and maintain people’s interest, but not to risk an accident by replaying the most dangerous part of their act too often. The rest of the time they spent wandering through town buying things that would enhance their disguise, or else sitting in the tree-shaded inner courtyard of their inn listening to what other travellers would tell of their journeys, as well as town-gossip. They also caught up on sleep and regular, plentiful food, knowing that as soon as they were on the run again, these commodities would become scarce once more.

The hunting party returned in the evening of the seventh, two days prior to the party. Rabô came to report that their numbers had been somewhat reduced, although it was not clear if so many men had fallen, or else if some had been dispatched to continue to scout the area, or join Captain Rahmân’s men in Badra. There had been a number of wounded in the company which indicated that there had been some fighting. No prisoners had been amongst the soldiers.

Soon talk was making the round that the hunters had made with unexpected, fierce resistance, and when became known where exactly they had been looking for the “outlaws” they had set out to bring down, rumours of the curse that lay on that particular place were revived. It was said that no real enemies had been fought there, but the ghosts of those tarks who had perished on the hillside so many centuries ago.

The “entertainers” waited with mounting anxiety for tidings from these “ghosts”. They arrived, to general relief, in the morning of the eighth in the form of Numaïr who apparently had spoken with Khorazîr and the others. According to him, the fight had been fairly even. A cunning surprise attack by the rangers and Khorazîr’s men had levelled what advantage Adûnakhôr’s company had held in numbers, arms and armour. There had been losses on both sides, and injured, too. When it had become clear that the rangers would not be able to defend the tomb any longer, the company as agreed beforehand had split up and dispersed into the woods. Some of the soldiers had pursued, but had not been able to catch them again. The most tenacious of the pursuers had been taken care of, and they had never returned to their company, thus manifesting the popular belief that the forest around the ancient tomb was infested by ghosts.

+++

Faramir did not sleep well in the night before the feast – in fact, sleep evaded him, so that at last he volunteered to watch for what remained of the hours of darkness. They had taken turns of night-watch ever since their arrival at the inn, to ensure there would be no surprise visit from soldiers or other unwelcome guests.

Sitting on the windowsill with his back against the frame, he surveyed the market-square, deserted but for two cats, his mind squirming with thoughts of the party. They had discussed possible situations over and over again during the day, pouring over the copied map of the castle studying possible escape-routes, before finally burning the paper lest it betrayed them if found. Faramir was sure they had not accounted for every ‘what if’, but certainly they had considered many. Many unpleasant ones, too.

With a low feeling in his stomach he recalled Mezlâr’s inquiry what they should do if Faramir was captured and there was no chance of freeing him on the spot. “In Lôkhî’s and my case,” the guard had said, “the question would not arise. We have no desire to end as the Snake’s prisoners, and prefer a swift death to one under torture in his cells. Lord Khorazîr and Lady Narejde know this. But what about you? What will the Snake do with you if he captures you?”

“I do not know, Mezlâr,” Faramir had replied. “My life expectancy will not be very long, I reckon. He tried to kill me in Kadall, and he will do so again. Still, I imagine he would keep me alive as long as he deems me useful, either as a hostage to keep Elessar and his other enemies at bay, or else to force Éowyn to bend to his will. Perhaps he would have me killed publicly, to boast before his friends and allies.”

“Do you prefer to be taken alive then, hoping that he’ll spare you long enough for your King to rescue you?” Lôkhî had asked, and Faramir had shrugged. He still owed him an answer. But what should he have replied?

He knew that if Al-Jahmîr caught him again, his chances for survival were slight, hardly existent at all. Even if used as a hostage, the Snake would never set him free, or if he did, Faramir was sure he would have tortured him before so that a life as he knew would not be possible anymore. He still recalled the treatment he had received on Tolfalas. He knew what his enemy was capable of. And this time, not only he would suffer, but Éowyn as well. What if she was made to watch? He could not bear the thought. Would it not be kinder for all involved if he chose what Khorazîr’s guards had done: if possible, a swift death by his friends’ hands?

You promised your little boys to return to them, said a small but persistent voice in his head. You did not use the dagger on Tolfalas, even when the pain became unbearable. And you kept your promise to return to your family. Would you then forgo hope this time, be it oh so slight?

Things were different this time, he reasoned. He had to think of Éowyn as well. During their meeting, she had implied she would not manage to mourn him again, but he knew she would. She was strong, although right now she might not feel it. At least one of them would return to their children, and if at one point a choice had to be made … well, the baby had made it. Not even Éowyn could argue about that. So his task was going to be to try and keep the two from harm, physical and emotional, as best he could, and if that meant a choice between a swift death, even under her eyes, and a slow, cruel one, suddenly the decision seemed easy.

He was still afraid. There had been a time in his life when the prospect of death had not held much fear. But ever since he had a family of his own, things had changed. His life was not his own to spend any longer. Certainly, there was no doubt that his children would be looked after well by their aunt and uncle and his friends, but he knew how it felt to lose a parent. The little ones had seen too much grief in their young lives already. He did not want to add any more.

“Don’t worry too much, Dúnadan,” Lôkhî’s voice made him jump slightly. Faramir had not heard the little man leave his bed, and now he scolded himself for letting his attention slip. The guard stepped to him. “Can’t sleep, either,” he muttered. “Bloody Al-Jahmîr, hope he lies awake as well with thoughts of you rushing in and ruining his grand party causing him stomach ache. Guess I should have drunk that wine after all, at least then I’d have had a good night’s sleep.”

“We shall have to get ready soon, anyway,” said Faramir, glad of the distraction. His thoughts had become gloomier than he appreciated, and there was no one like Lôkhî to cheer one up again.

Lôkhî cast a glance out of the window. “Aye, you’re right. After all, you’ll need some time to apply the new make-up we bought. And some help with that, too. Ah, we’ll be looking splendid, I tell you.”

+

Lôkhî had not exaggerated. When they joined the already considerable throng in front of the gates of Ihimbra castle, they stood out from the other entertainers by the quality of their garments and the way they bore themselves. Ever since Ranak’s visit, their fame had spread. The landlord at the inn had insisted on providing them with a donkey for the tent and other gear, and one of his grooms to lead it. Now the lad stood gazing in awe at the high red walls and the impressive gate with its two massive wings with their wrought-iron fittings in the shape of curving, twisting snakes. The early sunlight made the rock glow like blood, and glinted on the spears and helmets of the soldiers manning the tall battlements.

Faramir could sense the excitement in all assembled as they waited for the gates to open, although he was convinced that none of them shared the mixture of dread and excitement he felt. Once he passed through these gates, the true test of his disguise – and indeed his luck – would commence. He hoped both were going to hold.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Tue 30 Dec , 2008 12:31 am 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Éowyn blinked in surprise and then gave the woman a sympathetic look as Inzilbêth described the encounter in the market. She could understand the shock of an unexpected meeting, especially with the danger involved. Strange how we both have men who will take ridiculous risks in the name of love, she thought.

“I didn't know what to say to him,” Inzilbêth went on quietly, wiping a stray tear from her cheek. “As much as I wanted to see him, talk to him, I wanted him out of there as well. It's too dangerous for him. Any soldier would jump at the chance to earn the reward that's on his head. I told him so, even though I'm sure he knew the same.” She paused and looked down at her baby. “I told him about Dala, and Adûnakhôr. I must have babbled like a fool girl,” she said, a note of bitterness in her voice. “I just wanted to let him know that I was all right, that I was not living a terrible or unhappy life, but he did not take it that way.

“He hinted that he wanted me to come with him. I loved him once, and he is still dear to me, but what I felt when I realized it was him there in the market was different. There was a time when I gladly would have gone with him, but not anymore.” She sighed and shifted in the chair. “I tried to help him a little by telling him about Adûn and the soldiers going out to search the countryside. I didn't want to betray my husband's confidence, but I also didn't want Azrahil to stumble into a trap when he did leave town. By now he was getting angry with me for refusing him, I think.”

“I doubt he was truly angry with you,” Éowyn assured her. “When he told me about you last year, it was clear he hoped that one day you two could be together. But now he is realizing what a false hope it was, and if anything, his anger was at his plans not turning out the way he had wanted them. Your life has changed and there is no place in it for him anymore, and he had not reckoned with that.”

Inzilbêth remained quiet after that, lost in her thoughts. A wind chime somewhere tinkled as the breeze wove through it, and other sounds from the garden indicated that party preparations were well under way. Éowyn wanted to ask if Azrahil had said anything about how Faramir was faring or what he was planning next, but then she realized he likely would not have entrusted his cousin's wife with such information. After all, there was no guarantee she could be trusted – a thought which caught Éowyn off guard briefly and she told herself to rethink just how much she shared with the woman – and moreover, he did not know she was in such close contact.

“He said...” Inzilbêth's brow furrowed as she recalled an unpleasant memory. She shook her head, her dark curls swaying slightly. “I know he could be cruel, I just never expected it to happen to me. Perhaps it was just in anger, but his words hurt. I did not ask to be in this position, caught between two men who love me. I just wanted him to be safe,” she said fiercely, her eyes bright, “and I want Adûnakhôr to be safe.” Dala squirmed and Inzilbêth shifted the girl to her other arm. “How do you do it?” she asked. “How do you cope with such worry for the one you love?”

Éowyn looked away, trying to find a way to explain that you never did get used to it, that the fears always haunted you until he was back, safe, beside you. “I try to keep the worry hidden as much as I can,” she said finally, “but it never fully disappears.”

“I wish I could endure it as well as you do.”

Éowyn shook her head. “I have learned such endurance under many hardships, and I would not wish such a road upon anyone.”

They talked quietly a while longer, until Inzilbêth had regained her composure and seemed once again at ease. When she left to nurse her daughter, Éowyn sank back into the pillows and ran a hand through her hair. What had Azrahil been thinking? Was he truly that much of a foolish love-struck boy to risk being seen in the town? Did he believe that somehow he could talk Inzilbêth into helping them? It was a dangerous role for anyone to be caught in, but her position made it all the more perilous, though it was also one they could use. She shook her head. Speaking to Inzilbêth had been risk enough, but she was certain the woman would not do anything to endanger Azrahil, and that likely meant giving any more sort of aid.

They were finishing supper when Adûnakhôr returned. The left sleeve of his tunic was torn and the cloth was spattered with dirt stains. Even so, Inzilbêth rushed to greet him, and for a moment the weariness left his features as he embraced her. He sat down heavily and took the cup a servant rushed to bring him, draining it in one draught.

“Are you hurt?” Inzilbêth asked as he leaned forward to rest his head on his arms.

“No,” came his muffled reply before he straightened again. “Just tired from slinking through the underbrush. Did we fight ghosts today or living, breathing men? I'm not sure.” He described the journey up to the ancient tombs, how after a few minutes Aurens had ordered complete silence as the men had already begun murmuring tales of ghosts and hauntings. He wondered whether he had brought with him brave soldiers or high-voiced boys who wanted to hide behind their mothers' skirts. The morning's fog had made the horses skittish, which only added to the men's unease. Even the confidence of their leaders had done little to improve the mood.

They were still some distance from the tombs when a horse tripped a line running between two trees, sending the animal to the ground with a broken leg and unleashing a bundle of loose branches upon the fallen rider. The commotion spooked the rest of the horses, which added to the noise. With any hope for a quiet entrance gone, tactics changed. “Only a few of us were mounted, and we went on foot after that and sent the horses back down to the road,” he said. The split into two groups and crept onward. The forest had begun to come alive with squirrels and other creatures rustling in the trees and bushes, and the birds were beginning their morning chorus.

“After a few minutes came a bird call I had never heard before. I had my men stop, and soon the call was answered with another, and then the arrows came.” He had ordered shields up, and the company had come together to form a tight shell of tall shields that covered their heads and sides. Their own archers managed to get a few shots off after the loud thuds and clanks of their foes' arrows rang against the shields. They repeated this a few more times until their foes no longer returned the exchange. Cautiously they moved forward, leaving behind several comrades who would not return to the red walls.

“Tarks,” Adûnakhôr snorted. “We couldn't see them even when we tripped over one our men had brought down. They dress to blend in so well with the trees that you'd think they were tree folk themselves.” He glanced at Éowyn who remained silent but watched him thoughtfully. “We finally made it to the open area that leads to the tombs, and there we found Aurens already fighting with the outlanders.” The reinforcements coming from the trees gave the Umbarians heart and for a time the battle was well matched. He saw Khorazîr and Narejde fighting side by side, and any fool who went forward to slay her and claim the longstanding prize for her life soon found himself without his own. “She laughed as she fought,” he muttered.

But in time the greater numbers from Ihimbra prevailed and began driving the others back from the tombs. Then the others had split up and disappeared into the trees. A handful of the Umbarians had rushed in after them before Aurens gave the order to regroup.

“'We'll never see them again,' he said as he watched the brush close behind them,” Adûnakhôr said as he dipped a slice of bread in a bowl of soup. “Then he saluted the forest, and we began to take stock of our losses.” They had lost several men, and some were wounded. The other side seemed to have fared similarly, he said. “We took no prisoners, and I don't doubt Aurens is right. The ones who went into the trees won't come back out.”

The men buried their own dead and then began arguing about what to do with the tarks and the others. “Aurens told them to place them all in tombs. 'After all,' he said, 'their people built them long ago.' The men balked at that idea. I think for a while they had forgotten where they were, as it's hard to think of ghost stories when you're fighting the tark in front of you. But in the end he gave them a direct order, and they followed it, though reluctantly. And perhaps their ghosts will give us a little peace since we gave them that honor.”

He continued eating, then went on with his tale. “We left most of the men there to hold the area. The men who stayed were not pleased with the idea, but I don't think they'll desert. I heard one of them say that if they can hold off the living tarks, their fallen friends can do the same in the ghost realm. The rest of us made our way to the river and followed it to the open and then on to the road and back home. Aurens is giving his full report to father. I doubt it will be what he wants to hear.”

Éowyn exchanged glances with Inzilbêth and then looked down at her empty plate. The skirmish had accomplished little, other than drive her friends from one area to another, and it appeared they had planned for that eventuality anyway. If anything, the Umbarians had worsened their cause, since the rangers preferred the forest for a battlefield. They could disappear in plain sight using just the shadows the trees offered. It seemed no one of great rank had fallen, since Adûnakhôr had not noted anyone of rank, but she felt remorse for the good men who had.

“Will you go back out tomorrow?” she heard Inzilbêth ask.

Adûnakhôr shrugged. “That will depend on what father wants. He may be content to have just scattered them. Guests are supposed to begin arriving tomorrow, and I don't think he wants to stir up too much trouble with them around.” He rubbed his forehead. “They do know how to fight, and I can't say I'm particularly looking forward to another encounter.”

Éowyn nodded as she caught his gaze. He studied her for a moment, then poked at the sliced fruit on his plate. At times it seemed he wanted to say more but thought better of it. He brightened noticeably when Inzilbêth brought Dala to him. “Ah, there's my girl,” he said as he took the squirming infant in his arms. Éowyn excused herself and began to return to her rooms when Adûnakhôr called to her.

“I do not think your husband was part of the fray,” he said. “Or if he was, he was behind the action giving orders. He certainly was not among the fallen that I could see.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly and continued to her room.

She lay awake that night thinking. The child gave her no peace, rolling and twisting within her, and she hoped the babe would tire soon so she could rest as well. She wondered where Faramir was tonight, whether he was safe. Had he been a part of the day's fight at all? Who had fallen? When she was free of this place how many friends would not return home with the rest? They were unpleasant thoughts and they weighed heavily on her mind. She rolled over and tried to banish them, but they resisted. The Snake's son had not given an estimate of how many rangers had fought, but from his description is sounded as though a good number had been in the forest. Had help begun to arrive? Would they soon begin to try to free her in earnest? Would someone try to sneak into the upcoming party and slip her out of the castle? She pondered this new thought.

It would be brazen, but with the many people attending, perhaps the guards would not notice a few more leaving. Perhaps servants would be going up and down the road to the town frequently, and they could exit with them. But what of her appearance? Surely if they tried to leave hooded the guards would demand to see their faces, and her fair skin and golden hair would need much work to conceal, and there likely would be little time for that. Plus her form would surely draw questions. Moreover, the Snake had probably considered this possibility and would keep an eye on her all evening.

She flinched as the baby gave a particularly hard kick and softly rubbed the spot near her rib. Faramir had always wanted to know when his child was moving, and he would follow the motion around her belly with his hands. Sometimes if the movement made her uncomfortable he would talk to the baby and tell it to be gentler with mami. She wished he was here now to scold the little one. Their brief meeting in the orchard made her miss him all the more. She closed her eyes. Soon, soon she would be with him again.

+++

The next two days passed by in a flurry of activity. Miliani had begun giving her beauty treatments in preparation for the party (the girl had wanted to begin days ago but Éowyn kept telling her no), which consisted of baths with multiple oils and using various sweet-smelling lotions on her skin, and trying out various hair styles to see which one best complimented her features. Éowyn thought it all a useless bother, but then Inzilbêth had stopped by during a lull in her own preparations to offer some advice, and things had just gone downhill from there. The Umbarian woman of course took the serving girl's side in this matter, and Éowyn found herself spending far more time in front of a mirror than was reasonable (or so she thought.)

The day before the party, the Snake summoned her to join him at lunch. He seemed distracted, Éowyn noticed, and she learned that the first of the invited guests had arrived that morning and the ships of others were seen nearing the harbor. “You will be introduced to them at the party,” he told her, “and I expect you to make pleasant conversation.”

“Am I not to warn them of your downfall, then, and merely comment on the pleasant weather and unsavory company?”

His eyes flashed over the rim of the goblet he drank from. “I'm sure you can find suitable topics,” he said. “And if you cannot, or chose not, then so much the pity.”

He went on to say the dress he had chosen for her would be waiting in her room after lunch, and that he expected to see her tomorrow in her full regalia so he could give his approval. The idea of having to go through the whole regime once did not delight her, but to learn she would have to do it twice irritated her even more.

When she returned to her quarters, however, she was surprised to find the dress he had chosen was not something she entirely disapproved of. The white silk of the bodice was trimmed in a rich, deep blue and the bodice itself embroidered with stars and crescent moons. The bottom of the loose white skirt had been dyed in a similar blue, and when she moved, Miliani said, it looked like waves on the sea.

The Snake said much the same when he saw her. He walked slowly around her, giving her an appraising look, then stopped and traced the line of her necklace across her throat and down the hanging strand of pearls. “Lovely indeed,” he said. “I'll have to make sure no one tries to steal you from me, though perhaps we could negotiate a price.” He took a section of her hair in his hands and inhaled deeply. “Very nice,” he said. “The luxuries have not been wasted.”

She had been about to give him a scathing reply when a servant entered and announced that more guests had arrived. The Snake stole a kiss and departed.

Éowyn marched back to her room, seething. Did he think her some sort of live doll he could dress up as he pleased and show off to his friends? She had it in her mind to refuse to acquiesce entirely, but the next afternoon he visited her quarters to make sure she was getting ready, and to give her some final instructions. She would not go out with the rest of the household; instead, he would come fetch her when it was time.

Miliani was working on the final slender braid that would join the other two on the left side that would be drawn back and pinned up into a small knot with the rest when Inzilbêth peeked in to say they were leaving now. She grinned. “You look wonderful,” she said. “I'd almost be worried you'd lure away my husband, if I didn't trust him so.” After the Umbarian left with a giggle, Éowyn turned back to the mirror, and she had to admit that she did appear much like her usual self, just a little fancier, maybe. Miliani had gone light on the powders and colored creams for her face, so though she knew they were there, they were not distracting. No, the earrings were distracting, made out of thin lines of gold shaped much like a peacock's feather, with three brilliant sapphires dangling in a row. They were surprisingly heavy, and she startled a little when they happened to brush against her neck.

Al-Jahmîr did indeed stop to check on her, and once again he approved of what he saw. He lifted her chin and ordered a little more color be put on her lips, but otherwise she was perfect, he said. Éowyn kept her expression calm and tried to think of something else while he gazed at her. “I will come get you shortly,” he said, nodding as the color was applied to his liking.

She sat on the stuffed chair for several minutes and fidgeted with a fold in her dress. Music and a jumble of voices drifted into the room, but all was too far away to be much more than a buzz. The evening sun was drawing near its nightly bath in the sea, and the sky was ablaze with color. The weather at least was going to be delightful, she thought, even if the company was not.

Suddenly she straightened, appalled at her own behavior. The Snake had told her to stay put, but why was she so meekly obeying this command? Nothing was making her stay here until he came to fetch her. There were few things she could do to truly cross him, but spoiling whatever grand entrance he had planned for her would surely rankle. She stood and told Miliani she was going. The girl's eyes widened but she said nothing and fretted only a little when Éowyn took the damp cloth from the basin and wiped away the extra color Al-Jahmir had demanded be on her lips.

Taking a deep breath, she started for the garden. She had hardly walked outside before she smelled the spices and incense that hunt heavy in the air. It was a heady mix, and she paused a moment to become better used to the blend of scents. Torches flickered in their pillars around the garden, and oil lamps waited on the many tables under the grand pavilion to be lit later in the evening. Dozens of people mingled among the hedges, sat on the edges of the fountains and danced in one of the clear spaces. Some of the men were dressed in similar fashion to Al-Jahmîr, and she guessed they were from Umbar city. Others wore the attire of desert tribes, though their tattooed faces would have given some of them away no matter what they wore. It appeared even corsairs were in attendance. Servants scurried among the crowd. Some dressed in the Snake's livery and bore trays of small foods which they offered to the guests. Others seemed to relay messages from their masters to others in the crowd.

She hesitated behind one of the high hedges, suddenly unsure of herself. Regaining her resolve, she strode into the party lot. Instantly she drew glances, followed by repeated looks when the observers realized she was not one of them. Conversations grew hushed as she went past, then sprang to life again in hurried whispers. She nodded in acknowledgment the few times anyone greeted her. As she strolled down the path, she saw a pair of jugglers throwing brightly colored cloth balls back and forth, keeping the many orbs in air without faltering. They had drawn a loose circle of an audience, and the occasional taunt as some fellow tried to break their concentration.

Continuing on, she skirted past the area where the dancers were consumed in a lively tune. The song was about a sailor's wife who had been pulled aboard a ship that was going for a pleasure cruise, and apparently she dreaded being out on the water. Over the rapid thumping of the drum and the merry hum of the fiddle she caught some of the words.

”Oh me, oh my,” I heard me ol' wife cry
“Oh me, oh my, I think I'm going to die!
“Oh me, oh my,” I heard me ol' wife say,
“I wish I'd never taken this excursion around the bay.”
Hey!


The dancing pairs whirled around at the end of the last line, and the men took the ladies by the waist and lifted them high on the shout. Éowyn spied Adûnakhôr and Inzilbêth among the dancers, laughing and clapping as the song came to an end. They left the floor as the musicians struck up another tune, and both were surprised to see her watching them from the sides.

“I didn't expect to see you so soon,” Inzilbêth said as they met her.

“I came on my own,” Éowyn replied, noting the glances the pair exchanged. “You seem to be enjoying yourselves already.”

Inzilbêth grinned and looked back over her husband's shoulder at the dancers. “It's as good as any event in Umbar,” she said, “and it's hardly even begun!”

“Indeed,” Adûnakhôr added, “I saw some acrobats practicing their rolls earlier, and I've heard there is a fortune teller who doubles as a target for some daring knife throwing.”

“I did not expect there to be so many people,” Éowyn said, looking around at those who were still watching her curiously.

“Father is known to extend invitations to anyone on whom he wishes to make an impression,” Adûnakhôr said. He lowered his voice. “Most here are his friends. Many of them will help him regardless. Some he invited in order to persuade them. Others he knows will refuse to help him, no matter what, but not inviting them would only disgruntle them more. Others cannot help him at all, but as I said, he wishes to make an impression. Come,” he said, offering her his other arm, “I'm rather thirsty after all that dancing.”

They wandered through the crowd and to a table where servants were ladling drinks into goblets. Éowyn took one and found it was filled with a blend of sweet fruit juices, but as she savored it a moment, she tasted something else, a spice she could not quite identify. It brought out the other flavors without being overpowering itself.

“You lucky bastard!” The three turned to see a corsair walking toward them, a cup of wine in one hand. “I want to know what you did to get these absolutely beautiful women on each arm.”

“Well, Castamir,” Adûnakhôr replied, “it all comes down to being young, rich and handsome.” He grinned as his friend swore and took a swallow of wine.

“It's always that part about the riches that throws me,” he bemoaned, though Éowyn noticed a new gold chain around his neck since she had first seen him.

“And the handsome part,” Inzilbêth teased.

“Eh,” Castamir shrugged, “what would you know? You're just an old married woman.”

“Watch what you say about this old married woman,” Adûnakhôr said with mock seriousness, “because there's an old married man who will knock you down if you start saying back things about her.”

The corsair guffawed. “Alright then, I'll just say this.” He leaned toward Inzilbêth and faked a whisper. “Any time you want to run away with young and handsome, I have a ship ready to sail.” Only Éowyn saw the troubled shadow pass across Inzilbêth's face before she swatted at corsair.

Another young man walked up to join them, and Adûnakhôr slipped away from the ladies to embrace him heartily. “Good to see you, brother,” he said. When he drew back, Éowyn saw the young man did indeed carry the Al-Jahmîr look, though perhaps a bit softer in his features. He appeared several years younger than his brother, and he could not seem to stand completely still. He either shifted his weight from foot to foot, or he ran his thumb across his fingers, or his eyes darted around the area, never lasting long any one object or person. He acted like a trapped creature, nervous, always trying to find a way out. Éowyn thought she saw a hint of fear in his eyes when he finally looked at her.

“Éowyn, this is my little brother, Khazen,” Adûnakhôr said. “He spends much of his time in the city on business for father. I think he prefers the frantic pace of city life over the more quiet living out here.”

“There's more to do, more interesting people to talk to,” Khazen said. “But sometimes even I need a breather, and then it's good to come home, though tonight it feels like I'm back in town with all these familiar faces here.” He began sniffing suddenly, but stopped when his brother gave him a long, hard look.

“I thought you said you had stopped doing that,” Adûnakhôr said in a low voice.

Now Khazen did indeed look like he was trying to find an escape. Fortunately for him, one appeared in the form of his father hurrying with long strides toward the group. His brow was furrowed, and the occasional person who would try to speak to him quickly changed their minds and stepped out of his way. The patterned silk of his green tunic shimmered in the evening light. Éowyn once again put on her calm expression as she took the full brunt of his glare.

Then with a bit of effort, the Snake regained his pleasantness. “I see you decided to join the festivities sooner than expected, my dear,” he said, reaching for her hand. “If you'll excuse us,” he said to the others, “there are some introductions that need to be made.” He gripped Éowyn's hand tightly as he led her away. “Can you not follow even a simple instruction?” he muttered as they wove through the crowd.

“I did not want to miss out on any of the fun,” she answered evenly. “Did I spoil something you had planned?”

“I just prefer things to happen when they are supposed to happen,” he said. He brought her to a small, round table slightly away from the rest of the current activity and somewhat hidden by the tent's curtain. Three finely dressed men sat there, deep in conversation. Two appeared to be of the same generation as the Snake, but the third was much younger, perhaps even younger than Faramir, Éowyn realized.

“Gentlemen, I would like you to meet someone special,” Al-Jahmîr said, interrupting them. The three did not appear to mind the break in their conversation as they turned and regarded Éowyn carefully. She thought she recognized one of the older men. “Éowyn, this is Lord Barazôn, from a long and distinguished family in Umbar city,” he indicated the older man Éowyn had not recognized. His long beard was snowy white, but his eyes held a keenness that said his mind was still sharp.

“Lady,” the Umbarian said, nodding to her.

“And I trust you recall Taridûn,” Al-Jahmîr continued, indicating the other elder.

“The pearl trader,” Éowyn said, suddenly remembering their meeting.

The old man beamed as he rose and kissed her hand. “As ever, a pleasure,” he said, though Éowyn remembered his sweet words hid a vicious side.

“And here is Lord Jabari,” he motioned to the younger man whose dark, intense gaze had not left Éowyn. “He is from Azmath-Shobek along the river Kethera, several days to the south along the Spice Road. He is very kind to have traveled so far to see us.”

Lord Jabari stood and bowed to her. “Lady,” he said, his voice carrying a hint of the accent found among the desert tribes, “I have heard much about you. How much truth is in the stories, though? Strange tales often brew during war.”

Éowyn felt Al-Jahmîr tighten his grip on her other hand for a moment. “That I disguised myself and rode to battle to defeat Sauron's fell captain – those stories are true,” she answered. “But if a particular embellishment strays too far from that tale, then its authenticity is indeed questionable.”

“Maybe we will find a time later to talk of stories,” Jabari said, mollified, as he returned to his seat.

Al-Jahmîr spoke with them a few minutes more, then excused himself again and took Éowyn to another cluster of nobles. This exchange of greetings continued with several more groups of varying social status until Éowyn had long forgotten which name went with which face. She had been introduced to some of the women at the party – sometimes wives of nobles or merchants, sometimes not – and they had all coolly greeted her but offered little more than that. Often they studied her looks before glancing down at her figure, then turning to their partner and raising an eyebrow.

After greeting the last group, Al-Jahmîr told her to go take a seat at the head table. Before she was completely out of earshot, she heard one of the men in the group say, “Now, tell me, Marek, is it really yours?” She turned to rejoin the conversation, but people had filled the walkway behind her. So she started toward the table where she saw Inzilbêth sitting and cooling herself with a fan. On the way, she passed a large glass box filled with water sitting on a pedestal. She stared at the gray blob floating within it, and the many long tails that uncurled from under it.

“What is that?” she asked, taking a seat next to Inzilbêth.

The woman casually glanced toward the tank. “That? It's a squid. The cook will fry it up later.”

“You eat it?” Éowyn asked, aghast.

The Umbarian shrugged and shook her head. “I don't like the texture very much. Too chewy. Some people love it, though. It's a delicacy.”

Éowyn shuddered and kept her gaze away from the creature. Watching the guests mingle was enlightening. Some groups, such as the corsairs and the merchants, stayed far away from each other. Warning looks were given whenever one cluster strayed too close to another. The nobles also stuck close to their friends, though they were more likely to drift from one group to another to talk and perhaps make a promise here or there.

The musicians were still going strong, playing another lively tune that attracted several dancers. Éowyn thought she saw some of the consorts among them, but they were too far away for her to see clearly. They were near the wall that overlooked the sea, and the dying sun blinded her.

She was beginning to feel hungry when she heard someone come up beside her. “May I take this seat?” he asked. She glanced up to see one of the Umbar city nobles she had met earlier. He was in his 40s, she guessed, with a friendly smile despite missing an upper left tooth. At her nod, he sat and put a narrow wooden box on the table. “It is polite to bring the hostess gift,” he said, “even if her situation is unusual.”

Éowyn lifted the lid and pushed aside the paper to reveal a simple spyglass resting on a cloth. “So I can watch for ships in the bay?”

“Take a look, first,” he prompted.

She lifted the spyglass and extended it. Holding it up to her eye, she gasped. Instead of seeing the hedge she had pointed to, she saw a pattern of many colors, and as she turned the glass, the pattern turned into something different entirely, and with every adjustment the image changed.

“It's beautiful,” she said, lowering the glass. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” he replied. “It may not help you spy ships, but it will give you something pretty to look at every time.” He glanced out over the crowd, then leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I'll give him this: It was a bold move bringing you here. But I wonder if he really can help Umbar win her freedom.”

“You already are free. There is no shame in being part of a kingdom.”

He snorted. “A kingdom we never wanted. A kingdom that abandoned us to fend off enemies on our own. Now that the great war is over, they expect us to embrace them as long-lost brothers?”

To this Éowyn made no reply, as she saw Al-Jahmir and his sons approaching. The nobleman noticed too, for he stood and nodded to his host.

“Consigned yourself to the womenfolk already, Daramis?” Al-Jahmir asked, his glance flickering over the spyglass and returning to the addressed.

“I find they can be pleasant enough company,” the other replied, stepping away from the table.

Al-Jahmir chuckled. “Indeed, though I find this one balks like a mule at the idea of pleasantries. Go on, find your seat. The serious business of feasting is about to begin.” People had noticed the activity at the head table, and they strolled after their servants to their places at the various tables. Éowyn gave up her seat to Adûnakhôr, who sat at his father's right, and was told to sit at his left, with Khazen beside her. He was still fidgeting, and she soon found herself discomforted by his nervous energy.

Once everyone had been seated, Al-Jahmir stood and surveyed the gathered, nodding to the occasional individual. “Welcome, friends,” he began, his voice clear and strong over the snapping of the torch fire, “and fellow dignitaries, and, yes, even sometimes-foes. I thank you all for the honor of your presence, those who came from near, and those who undertook a long journey to be in attendance.” Here he looked toward a group of the tattooed desert folk. “I have called you here tonight to hear about a great proposal, and already you have peppered me with questions and concerns. Do not fear; they shall all be addressed in time. But since a growling stomach offers little useful advice when discussing business, let the feasting begin!”

A small bell rang, its high clear notes drifting over the garden, and almost immediately Ihimbra servants appeared carrying great trays heaped with food. Éowyn saw loaves of bread cut into various shapes and arranged in patterns on some of the trays, while on others pieces of roasted vegetables were lined up on thin wooden skewers. There seemed little order to the way they were brought out, as a pillar of fruit followed dishes of green and red peppers stuffed with rich cheeses. She noticed some arrangements were met with delighted surprise at the tables they were taken; she guessed they were special dishes the guests had not expected to see here. The meal grew more substantial as the meats were brought out. Fish, of course, was plentiful and came arranged on beds of greens or grains. However, a cheer went up from a table of corsairs when a whole boar, roasted and glazed, was brought to them.

Éowyn sat back as a massive fish was placed in front of Al-Jahmîr's setting. The cooked meat was surrounded by the more interesting parts of the whole fish, its long blue-gray tale, a large fin of the same color was raised high over its back like a fan, and its blue head tapered down to a long, slender point like a rapier. The tail stopped just short of Khazen's plate, and as Éowyn peered down the table, she saw the tip of the head extended well past Adûnakhôr's place.

Al-Jahmîr noticed her interest and said, “Sailfish have been known to attack fishermen's boats, ramming them with their spearheads. If often takes four or five men to bring the fish in over the side.”

As the feast progressed, entertainers Ranak had hired came to the open space amid the tables to perform. The jugglers gave way to a group of acrobats who did elaborate jumps and twists on their own, then joined together to throw one another in the air and then make the catch. One tiny fellow made an entire circuit around the group without ever touching the ground, and the audience applauded his success when he finally stood atop a set of shoulders to take his bow. A joker appeared in his frilled hat and introduced himself and his puppet, which seemed to have a voice of its own. It sounded faintly like the fool's, but he no one ever saw his mouth move to give it speech. The pair made jokes and observations about the guests, but they drew the biggest laughs when they had wandered over to where the consorts were reclining and begun flirting. Rashidah, who had clearly caught the man's attention, dumped her goblet of wine over both fool and puppet. The puppeteer hurried away, no longer eager to meet anyone's eye.

Al-Jahmir shook his head and motioned for a nearby servant. “Tell Ranak to send out those knife throwers he was telling me about. We need something thrilling to follow that disaster.”

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Thu 01 Jan , 2009 2:59 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“Come on, come on, you haven't been hired to empty the Lord’s tables,” a hot, puffing Ranak chided the threesome when, after a long day performing in various corners of the extensive gardens, with even more time spent studying the layout of the castle and observing security measures and guests, they had finally withdrawn to a quiet place near the now deserted sand-sculpture of a water-dragon, and helped themselves to food and drink.

The majority of guests had been escorted to the high table in the great pavilion, on the terraces close to the house, and even though Faramir had been tempted to follow, to try and catch a glimpse of Éowyn who surely would be present, he had been persuaded to bide his time.

“We can try and sneak up there later, when wine and stronger drink has coursed for some time,” Lôkhî had said. “They’re going to call for entertainments for sure then, and am going to be in the right mood to appreciate us without drawing too much attention to certain … ah … details.”

Faramir had conceded him a good point, hungry, thirsty and tired as he was from a long day in the hot sun. They had been given time to rehearse in the morning, had been instructed over and over again what to do and where not to go, before, after noon, the first guests had arrived, and they had been told to begin their performance. It had been a challenge to talk to a number of people from various backgrounds, often relaying more on guesswork than actual knowledge of their circumstances. But so far the ruse seemed to have worked, for he had heard no complaints, but on the contrary had found that a number of his visitors returned with friends or family. His voice was hoarse from having to raise it all the time, and his ribs hurt from the tight bodice. His companions were exhausted, too, even though Lôkhî managed to conceal his weariness with high spirits. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the party.

And indeed all of them had had a good laugh (although secretly), when they spotted two servants who, on the third glance, had looked very familiar despite the green and silver livery and certain other modifications to their appearance.

“Narejde was right, it does make you look younger,” Faramir had whispered to one as he had passed by with a platter of grapes and figs. “Much more civilised, too.”

Khorazîr, his hair trimmed as short as Faramir’s and covered by a small turban of green silk, and, even more of a change, his face clean-shaven, had given him a dark glance.

“If you were not wearing a dress and make-up, I would demand satisfaction for that remark,” had been the Haradan’s fierce reply, albeit accompanied by a wink and a smile. “As it is, you are doing your penance already.” And he had hurried off.

“Well, here it shows again who’s the true ruler of Khiblat Pharazôn now,” Lôkhî had commented with a broad grin.

“Ah, but you are not going to tell Khorazîr, are you?” Faramir had inquired, upon which Mezlâr had simply stated, “He knows. And he seems quite content, despite the recent sacrifice.”

+

This, then, had been about the only entertainment for the entertainers over the course of a long day. For sure, the feast was one of extraordinary extravagance, as was the castle. The gardens alone were beautiful, and under different circumstances Faramir would have enjoyed passing along the many winding paths and studying the strange plants and flowers, or simply enjoying the view over the sea. The castle was remarkable, not just in terms of defensive architecture, but also when it came to aesthetics. More than once when gazing at the layout of walls and battlements, the design of doors and windows he wondered if Númenorean architects had had a hand in the building of Ihimbra. No wonder Al-Jahmîr had yearned to return to the place after he had been forced to flee.

And then he remembered that despite its beauty and cunning design, for Éowyn the fortress was a prison. Suddenly the latticed windows looked like bars, and the guard-studded battlements forbidding and dangerous. At the end of the enchanting gardens, there only waited a sheer drop to sharp red cliffs and shark-infested waters. No, this beauty was deceiving, he decided, and it would be better to leave again soon. And as for Al-Jahmîr, he, too, would not dwell here much longer. If he could not see to it personally, then others would, Éomer foremost, and it would be difficult to prevent the Rohir from taking apart the castle stone after stone.

+

“Hurry, hurry up,” Ranak puffed as he urged them on, trotting behind them. “You’re going to perform right at the high table. Imagine the honour. Lord Al-Jahmîr requested you personally, and I hope for your sake you won’t disappoint him and his guests. I had to send in the other knife-artists first because you were nowhere to be found, you lazy buggers. Can’t keep the lords and ladies waiting, you see. You’re going to have to … oh dear, my heart, my heart.”

He sank down on one of the stone benches at a fountain, clutching his chest, his face purple and beaded with sweat. “Move, move,” he wheezed, and the threesome hurried up the last flight of steps, slowing down to a stately walk once they were nearing the pavilion and in sight of the assembled guests.

They had seen the terrace in the early afternoon when the tent and table had been set up and decorated. Even then, it had been a grand display. Now, in the light of torches and lamps and many paper lanterns hung in trees, the lights of which were creating colourful spots on the tarpaulin, and moreover the guests arrayed in their finery, with gold, jewels and pearls sparkling on their persons, it was transformed once more. No wonder the population was grumbling under Al-Jahmîr’s rule. Faramir could not help wondering how high taxes must have soared recently to finance all this, and how much the people must have laboured without pay or benefits, just to enable the Snake to impress his guests. The food alone would have fed a small host – and what foods there were. Just now two servants were carrying in a platter with a large fried squid, the tentacles curled up artfully around various smaller fish as if gabbing them, and set about with crustaceans and other sea-food.

His gaze followed the creature as he recalled how his cousin Elphir, his brother and himself had once tried to catch a quid hidden in a tide-pool on the coast near Dol Amroth, and had almost got overtaken by high tide because they had been unable to coax the thing from the cavity it had withdrawn into, holding on to the rock with four of its eight strong arms.

The platter was carried right up to the centre of the high table, and when he recognised who it was being set in front of, Faramir’s reflections on squid-hunting were ended immediately. For his gaze found what he had been secretly looking out for all day, and his attention was caught, thoroughly. Even though he had tried to imagine the scene, had thought about it constantly, thought he was prepared – he was not. She looked stunning, utterly beautiful. Even more so because next to the consorts and the other female guests (and even many of the men who seemed to be wearing more jewellery and make-up than even the most dressed-up ladies in Minas Tirith) she seemed very plain. Her dress was devoid of golden or silver embroidery, in colours that suited her so well as they complemented her fair skin and hair. What jewellery she wore was hardly existent in comparison to that of the other guests. Pearls instead of precious stones and thick gold chains. There was some more colour round her eyes and on her cheeks, and the earrings were distracting from her natural beauty. But other than that, he thought, she did not look much different than back home in Ithilien.

No, that was not true. There was a difference. She did not look happy. Even at the distance, there was a tenseness about her, even as she exchanged a remark about the squid with the fidgety young man beside her. And no wonder, with the Snake to her other side, and, by the looks of the other men close to Al-Jahmîr, his sons and the rest of his family. To Faramir’s surprise, the sight of his enemy left him cold. Oh no, there would be no danger of him losing his temper this time and endangering himself and his friends. And Éowyn. And the baby.

He did not even have time to worry about what might happen if somebody recognised him, or simply discovered he was not what he pretended to be, for, “Ah, there you are, finally,” a hurried voice tore him out of his contemplations. He turned to look into the anxious face of Ranak’s assistant, his pale face flushed for once with a mixture of worry and excitement. “The other knife-artists are almost done with their performances. You’ll be next. Some people have heard of your act, or even seen it, so expectations are high. Don’t disappoint!”

“Are you alright?” asked Lôkhî quietly after the young man had scurried off to oversee the set-up of their props. “I saw you gazing at the high table with a rapt expression – and no wonder. Your lady is drawing looks everywhere. Those consorts over there can hardly take their eyes off her, muttering all the time, the vicious things.”

Faramir gave a brief nod. “I am fine. What about you – and Mezlâr?”

“Let us begin,” came the guard’s plain reply.

+

Nervous as seldom before in his life, Faramir watched as Lôkhî went through his juggling and magic-tricks routine. As he had hoped, it went even better than previously. Lôkhî seemed to be thriving on thrill and excitement, and moreover on the highly appreciative audience (perhaps he had been right about the involvement of drink). He even went as far as to prance up to the high table and conjure up a flower for the dark-haired woman sitting next to the elder of Al-Jahmîr’s sons – Faramir recognised her as the woman he had seen in the Palantîr: she had to be Inzilbeth, then – from behind her astounded husband’s ear, to loud laughter and even louder applause.

Then, suddenly, and all too soon, it was his and Mezlâr’s turn. During Lôkhî’s performance, he had only dared twice to cast a brief glance at Éowyn and the rest of the assembly, mostly to try and see if he was given any strange looks. But so far the dim, flickering illumination and the general excitement were adding to his disguise. Al-Jahmîr seemed more interested in observing his guests than the entertainers, apparently trying to survey if they were enjoying what he had set up for them. And Éowyn? Had she not followed Lôkhî’s every movement with great interest? Had she perhaps recognised him? Too late Faramir recalled that Lôkhî could easily have provided her with a little message while conjuring flowers or fruit out of her hair. Well, it was too late for that.

And perhaps it was better if she did not know who was standing with his back to the brightly painted wooden board now, waiting for a dozen daggers to be thrown at him. She would only worry, and her worry would trouble him, too. Yet there was no need for concern. Mezlâr did not disappoint, either – only the other knife-artists who saw their efforts overshadowed by a true master. He cast several times, from various distances and positions, until calls from the audience demanded a scarf to be brought and his eyes be covered. Theatrically, one of the consorts rose and went forward, shed one of the silken veils that went for her dress – to gasps and whistles from the audience, for what she was left with hardly sufficed to keep her clad –, and with much ado bound the black and golden sash round his head.

Faramir tried to ease his tense breathing, and appear as calm and relaxed as before. The merry chatter and flirty remarks directed at the girl had died down. When briefly he raised his eyes to the high table, he saw that even Al-Jahmîr was watching intently now. And so was Éowyn. And she was not watching Mezlâr, but him. Their eyes met, only for an instant, but long enough to make him wonder if she knew.

Then the daggers struck the wooden plank around his head and shoulders in quick succession and, as usual, great precision, and he let out the breath he had held. Loud applause roared up. The guests seemed genuinely impressed. And their host well pleased, by his satisfied expression.

The threesome stepped forward and bowed, and prepared to leave. Ranak, who by now had recovered and managed to climb the stair as well rushed in to say a few words about where the trio could be seen after the meal, and that the ‘brave lady’ would be pleased to read the guests’ futures and tell their fortunes. Mezlâr was about to return the sash to the consort, to much giggling from the girls, when one of the guests seated close enough to Al-Jahmîr to be of some importance rose from his seat. He was rather young, not yet forty, Faramir reckoned, and richly dressed in Umbar-fashion. Yet despite choice of garments, there was something wild and dangerous about him, like a man only recently come to wealth, and by dark and twisted roads.

“Marek, Marek, you never cease to surprise. That were some of the best entertainments I have seen in a long time – well, you could only top it by persuading some of your lovely consorts here to do a bit of dancing later on, now that would be something, wouldn’t it? Anyway, this knife-man is astonishingly good. I only wonder … well, could he do it again? And with a little …” he paused for dramatic effect, knowing that everybody’s attention was his and relishing the moment, “… twist to his performance?”

Al-Jahmîr eyed him darkly for a moment, apparently considering if this was a test of some kind. From the tense exchange of glances between the two men, Faramir deducted they were not exactly on friendly terms. Competitors, perhaps, or this Umbarian was someone the Snake was trying to win over to his side. Obviously, he was someone Al-Jahmîr was trying to please.

“Perhaps you could explain this … twist, Muzîn,” he said evenly.

The other smiled jovially, but Faramir did not miss the calculating gazes the two men exchanged. “With pleasure, Marek, although I will not explain, but instruct your lovely lady here what is to be done,” Muzîn said, leaving his chair to approach the consort, who, pleased by the sudden attention, gave him a rapt smile which earned her mutterings and snide remarks from her companions. Her smile faded a little when apparently it was suggested to her that she would be made to stand target for Mezlâr. Her confidence returned, however, after Mazîn had whispered something into her ear, and with a clap to her backside, sent her off in Mezlâr’s direction.

Mezlâr took up position, and she bound his eyes with the sash again, while Muzîn motioned to Faramir to return to the board and pose as target. Gazing at Lôkhî, Faramir noted how the small man was watching the proceedings with a deep frown. Faramir shared his misgivings. If he had understood Muzîn’s implications correctly, the situation would become highly dangerous.

And no sooner had he positioned himself, with deliberate hesitation, all the time trying to think of a way to evade what Muzîn had devised, when the consort took Mezlâr by the shoulders and began to turn him around. Once, twice, three times, until he stood in position to throw again. But his aim, Faramir was sure, must have gone. If he cast now, he could hit anywhere. It was not a matter of skill and practise anymore, but mere luck. He heard Lôkhî curse under his breath. The consort curtsied to the audience and hurried out of the way.

Mezlâr stood, weighing one of his daggers in his hand hesitantly. “In your own time,” said Muzîn graciously, although the undertone in his voice implied that the other should not delay any longer. Faramir knew he must not stand and wait for the daggers. He might manage to evade one or two, with luck, but the risk was too high. Obviously, Mezlâr knew that, too, hence his reluctance to begin.

He cast a glance at Éowyn, quickly, almost secretly. Had she not paled? Perhaps she was simply worried about the stranger in the blue dress, but he thought there was something else in her expression, a fear much deeper. And suddenly his own fear passed, and was replaced by a mood fell and calculating. This cursed Muzîn, he would pay for the difficulties he had devised for them out of sheer cruelty and a desire to rankle the Snake.

So just when Mezlâr seemed ready to throw his first knife, Faramir stepped forward, to startled exclamations from some of the audience. “As you all have witnessed, cherished lords and ladies,” he addressed the assembly, speaking quietly in the desert accent so that the audience was forced to settle down again in order to catch his words, “my companions here are masters of their trade. My own skill I have not yet had opportunity to share with you, and I daresay it would be inappropriate to do so with knives sticking in me, should my companion happen to miss. I invite you all to join me in my tent, to have a look at your fortunes.”

There were murmurs both of interest and disappointment. Faramir raised a hand and continued, “But since Lord Muzîn has just devised such a thrilling scheme, I do not wish to rob you of the entertainment. As you have witnessed, it takes some great bravery to face the Master of Flying Daggers with his eyes covered. Surely there are many courageous men assembled here who dare take my place, and who are even brave enough to stand up to the Master now.”

Facing Muzîn directly, he inclined his head, smiling behind his veil. “Perhaps Lord Muzîn would like to go first. I read in the stars that he is a very brave man.”

Only Lôkhî and himself could see Mezlâr’s wicked smile at this invitation. Muzîn’s expression lost some of its swagger and self-confidence. A quick glance at Éowyn revealed her relief. And the Snake, he looked viciously gleeful. So things stand not to the best between Muzîn and him, Faramir noted to himself. And I am doing cursed Al-Jahmîr a favour by ridiculing his enemies.

Muzîn, however, soon recovered from the initial shock. “We must have a chat later, my lady, about my fortunes, and what else you may have read about me in the stars,” he replied with a courteous bow. “And although the heavenly lights are unlikely to lie to you, I daresay there are braver men like myself around here. Is it not well known that our gracious host is the bravest of them all, he who set an example by annoying the tarks, even going as far as trying to kill the second highest ranking noble in their realm, and bringing his wife to fair Ihimbra? Therefore, I propose a toast to Marek Al-Jahmîr and his golden-haired prize.”

As people stood to raise their cups and glasses to a surprised-looking Al-Jahmîr, who by his looks seemed unsure what to make of Muzîn’s sudden change of tactics, but nevertheless pleased by the general attention, the three entertainers used the opportunity to slip to the side of the pavilion.

“Bloody hell, that was a timely interference,” muttered Lôkhî, after making sure there was no servant or guest nearby to overhear them, running his sleeve over his forehead to wipe away sweat. “That pompous ass, he put you in greatest danger. Good you managed to pay him back, even though he wriggled out of it.”

“I would not have thrown,” Mezlâr said. He looked thoroughly relieved, however. Obviously, he had not had a real plan what to do instead. “Let’s be off.”

Faramir shook his head. “There are going to be speeches now. Marek seems in the right mood to make a few announcements, look how he moves himself into position. I must hear what he says. It could be important.”

Lôkhî nodded. “Should be entertaining, at least. And what a coincidence that by listening to the Snake you also have a good excuse to gaze at your lady, without too many people noticing, eh?”

Faramir smiled. “Whatever gives you that idea?”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Thu 19 Feb , 2009 5:04 pm 
A maiden young and sad
User avatar

Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Éowyn let out a long breath and sank back against her chair as the trio of entertainers took their leave. Their performance had been quite impressive, she had to admit, even before she had recognized the little man who had accompanied Faramir into the orchard. The wink and grin he had given Inzilbêth – along with the flower – while he had done his magic tricks had seemed familiar, and by the time he made his bow to finish the act, she had pieced together his identity. Thus, when the knife-thrower and his assistant began their routine, she had watched with more than casual interest. The knife-thrower she did not recognize; his assistant puzzled her as well.

At first she wondered if they had persuaded Narejde to don such an outfit, but the height was all wrong. In fact, as one by one the daggers found their marks, she recalled there were few among either Khorazîr's men or Faramir's company who were nearly that tall. A possible identity crept into her mind, and she brushed it off as absurd. But as she watched the show continue, she began to doubt just how absurd it really was. She had seen very few tall women in these parts – indeed, in her previous journeys to the south her own height, among other things, had set her apart from the other women. What if that's not a woman at all? All you can see of her is her eyes, and her gown reveals little of her shape. The thought continued to nag her, and she found herself comparing the strange lady to the consort who had joined the performance. Yes, too tall, far too tall, and those shoulders were rather broad, even as the flowing fabric of the veil and headdress tried to hide them. An uneasiness took hold of her. Thus she found herself holding her breath after Lahar covered the thrower's eyes with her sash and letting it out again loudly when the knives again found the wooden plank.

She flinched, startled, when Al-Jahmîr leaned toward her and commented as applause rang out around the garden. “You were worried about his accuracy, no?”

Éowyn glanced at him, and back to the performers, saying, “It takes great skill to throw blind, especially when the request is sudden.”

“I'm sure they practice it frequently,” Al-Jahmîr said. “Clearly you didn't notice that he had returned to the spot he started from before she covered his eyes. From there it's a matter of going through the routine as usual.”

His casual tone grated on her nerves, but before she could reply, Muzîn made his speech. She could sense the Snake's distaste for the other as she sat beside him, though little changed in his appearance. Perhaps the less calculating of those watching might think the host was merely irritated that someone was interfering in the order of events.

But what thoughts she had for the Snake fled as she realized that things indeed were not going the way the performers had intended. The juggler, standing off to one side of the clearing, shifted his weight as the knife-thrower was turned around. The person in front of the plank also seemed more tense than in the first two exhibitions. The guests had grown silent, all intensely interested in how it would play out this time. Éowyn felt her own heart beating faster. She added her own startled cry to the exclamations of others as the lady stepped forward and broke the dangerous spell with her announcement that she would be reading fortunes. Éowyn watched the performers slip away as the other guests toasted Al-Jahmîr.

As servants scurried to the various tables, refilling now-empty goblets and adding morsels to empty plates, the Snake himself stood. The chatter that had begun to rise quickly turned to silence as the guests again focused what was by now their somewhat-fuzzy attention on their host. Al-Jahmîr's gaze drifted from table to table before he began in a clear, smooth tone, “Welcome, favored guests, to my home. Your presence honors me, and even so I am humbled once again that such excellent people have chosen to acknowledge my request for your time. I will assure you that your journeys, brief and long, by sea and land, dull and tedious, have not been for naught.” He paused, again studying the faces watching him. “It gladdens me to see my tables are filled, for truly no one refused my invitation.”

Taridûn stood suddenly, his beard stained with wine or food. He swayed a little as he spoke. “How could we refuse?” the pearl trader crowed. “The feast alone is worth attendance, no matter what we think of you!” Several guests laughed loudly, while the more cautious among them merely chuckled or remained silent, as the old man cackled and sat down again.

Al-Jahmîr was among those who chuckled, as he did not seem put off by the implication. “You are free to think what you will,” he said, “and do as you will, for we should all be masters of our own destinies. Eat and be entertained with me, listen to me. Tonight I will ask for your help. In the morning you will be free to choose your course. My course is set for great accomplishment, and with great accomplishment comes great daring. What I dream is not for the weak or fainthearted among you. I know many of you chafe, as I do, under the heavy hand of our northern aggressor. Others of you do not find the yoke as heavy. I doubt the oxen in the fields find their burden heavy as well when the day's plowing begins, but as the morning wears on and the heat of the noon sun beats down upon them, I'm certain they search for the relief of the cool shade. Sometimes, if the planter is uncaring, he will push those poor beasts until they collapse in their tracks. He will ask more from them, even as they have nothing left to give. Such actions are despicable.”

Barazôn, one of the Umbar city lords, rose and bowed to his host, who returned the gesture, but not as deeply. “Your generosity tonight is unparalleled, gracious host,” he began. “You've brought together the finest food, the finest music, the finest company in the region. Tonight the best of Umbar is on display. My white hairs can attest that I've seen dark days in our fair land. Yet I believe our brightest days are on our doorstep. If we join together, we can surely usher them in. You need not ask, Marek, for I'll announce here and now that I throw my lot in with yours. You've dared to steal a jewel from the crown, and tonight it shines before us at your side.”

Éowyn kept her face impassive as she felt the gazes come to rest on her. Again she was a prize to show off, and clearly the Snake was not the only one here who thought of her as such. As the old lord took his seat again, she saw the friendly-faced man who had given her the spyglass stand. “I'll not be so quick to align with you,” he stated. “I'm one of those who does not find the yoke so heavy, not yet. I have doubts about such 'daring', as you've put it, the timing and methods. Nonetheless, I will listen.”

A half-dozen other lords followed their lead, some thanking and praising their host, others expressing concerns about his plans (out of general caution, they were quick to note, and perhaps those concerns would change once they knew his plans in full.) Éowyn noticed that there were some who remained silent, and by their stony expressions it did not seem likely they were going to add to the speeches.

When the last of these had had his say, Al-Jahmîr spoke again. “I thank you for your honesty and your compliments.” He gave a quick, jesting bow. “But for now I ask that you humor me once more, for I see the cooks fretting in the back there, certain I have forgotten about the delicious and delicate desserts they have slaved over these last hours.” Several guests craned their necks over their shoulders to see that, yes, indeed, some of the kitchen staff were nervously waiting in the shadows with covered trays. “Worry not, magicians of the kitchen, 'tis time for your sweets to put a final touch on the meal before the true serious business begins.”

He took his seat, and the cooks shooed the servants out into the crowd, delivering sweet pastries and baked fruits laden with spices. The musicians struck up a merry tune, and soon the hum of conversation filled the air. Éowyn pushed at the soft pear covered in some sort of sauce. It smelled lovely, but a knot had been growing in her stomach ever since the knife-throwing performance, and she did not feel like eating now. Al-Jahmîr's youngest son had fled the table as soon as the dessert course appeared, and the Snake was deep in conversation with his other son. She looked to the far end of the table, but Inzilbêth was also gone.

Shrieks of laughter drew her attention. Several of the consorts had taken dancing partners – younger members of the crowd on whom the sweet wine had taken a clear toll on their abilities to keep up with the fast tempo. Al-Jahmîr watched them for a moment, then motioned for a servant and gave a quiet instruction. The servant did not deserve the glares and pouts he received when he told the consorts to return to their places before escorting Lahar to the high table. She did not even look at Éowyn as she settled herself on the Snake's lap and draped her arms around his neck. “I thought you wanted us to enjoy ourselves and entertain the company,” she purred.

“I think you have provided plenty of entertainment,” he replied, running a hand through her perfumed hair. “But now I have a task for you.” He nodded to Muzîn, who was returning from the direction of the fortune-teller's pavilion. “Make sure that he has a very enjoyable evening.”

The consort watched her charge return to his seat, a thoughtful look upon his face. “I'll do my best, my lord,” she promised before kissing him slowly.

Éowyn felt a wave of revulsion sweep over her as the Snake murmured that perhaps he should change his mind and keep her for himself tonight. The girl laughed and rose to leave, giving Éowyn a swift, haughty glance before skipping away. I have told you before, I do not want him, she thought. She felt somewhat hurt at the girl's sudden coldness. Certainly they had not been much more than acquaintances during her time in the women's quarters, but she thought she had made it clear even then that she had no desire to replace any of them in their master's affections.

Distracted by her thoughts, she was thus surprised when Inzilbêth flopped into the empty seat next to her. “Are you having a good time?” the woman asked, her eyes bright as she looked out over the crowd.

“The evening is becoming a bit too long for my taste,” Éowyn replied.

“You should go see the fortune teller,” Inzilbêth prompted. “It's so quiet and calm in her tent.”

Al-Jahmîr joined the conversation. “What did she tell you, my dear? Plenty of good things I trust.”

She grinned and shook her head. “That's between me and the stars, father. She said it's bad luck to reveal a telling.”

They were interrupted as Aurens appeared and strode up to the high table, his polished silver helmet tucked under one arm. He bowed to his lord and said in a low voice, “Forgive me for bringing ill news to a beautiful night, lord, but there has been a disturbance at the stables. It appears a band of riffraff, no more than six or seven, have broken in. None of the guests' belongings are in danger, but some of our holdings and horses have been taken. They've fled into the orchards, and my men are pursuing them.”

Al-Jahmîr frowned as the commander gave his account. “I thought things had been going too smoothly,” he muttered. “Continue, commander, and bring me word if there's anyone of interest among them. Alert the other watches to be on the lookout for other unusual activity.”

“I've spoken with some already, sir, on my way here, and they report all is quiet at the gates and on the sea,” Aurens replied. “This appears to be an isolated incident.”

“Then let's be sure to keep it that way,” Al-Jahmîr said and dismissed him. “Strange they would only bother with our things,” he murmured after a moment. He scanned the party-goers, his eyes flickering from one group to another before he shook his head slightly. Then he stood, and Éowyn caught her breath as he said, “I think I'll go see that fortune-teller, since she seems to have had such a strong effect on you, Inzilbêth.”

Inzilbêth giggled. “I'm sure you'll be as impressed with her as I was,” she said. After her father-in-law left, she leaned close to Éowyn and whispered, “She seemed to know all about me, things I hadn't told anyone. She knew you helped me when Dala was born!” She glanced to see whether her husband was paying attention (he was being greeted by a guest dressed in a purple silk tunic with peacock feathers embroidered onto the sleeves), then lowered her voice until it was almost inaudible. “She even knew I had seen Azrahil!” Her eyes were wide now. “She didn't say his name, of course, but just said I had had a chance meeting with one who loves me.”

Éowyn felt dread begin to grow in her again. Who was this person hidden behind the veils? She was almost certain it was not Narejde, for though the woman was strong, she doubted she would be able to conjure up so much restraint to perform in front of her hated enemy. But who else was there? Perhaps they had dressed up one of the men... It was a crazy idea, but she wouldn't completely put it past them. Someone tall, slender, and perceptive enough to be a fortune teller and read the clues that people gave away in their faces and actions. She choked on her bite of pear as the pieces fell together.

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

Sweet home Indiana
Image


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Wed 25 Feb , 2009 10:47 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
“What are you doing here? You must get ready for your fortune telling!” Ranak’s voice, rather breathless again, rang in Faramir’s ears as he was trying to move a little further into the shadows to the side of the pavilion, in order to survey the assembly but remain out of sight himself. “Several people have announced planning to visit you, and some important folks, too. So don’t stand here gawping at the lords and ladies. Get set up speedily. We’ll best do it somewhere round here. I doubt the fine folks would like to tramp through the entire garden to find you.”

Suppressing a sigh, Faramir turned to the organiser. Even though he had spoken briefly, Al-Jahmîr had not yet launched a speech of importance – even though the remark about the “northern aggressors” had been interesting. Instead, some of his guests had risen to address him and thank him for the gracious invitation. It was in fact rather wearisome to listen to, therefore Faramir did not mind the disturbance as much as he would have otherwise. “I shall require some privacy,” he told Ranak gravely, “which the lords and ladies will appreciate as well.”

“As you wish, as you wish,” puffed Ranak, dabbing his forehead with a silken handkerchief, before waving the cloth at some servants. “Put up the fortune-teller’s tent next to the pavilion. And bring more lamps.”

“One will suffice,” put in Faramir quickly, knowing that less light would mean less opportunity for those sitting opposite him to discover something strange about his person.

The servants set to work, bringing the tent, pillows and the low table, and setting everything up next to the outer wall of the pavilion. Ranak left, apparently to inform those in the pavilion that the fortune-teller was now ready, or else looking after the further course of the entertainments (for soft music welled up near the high table). Faramir used the opportunity to briefly speak with Mezlâr and Lôkhî.

“Try and watch what passes inside the pavilion,” he told them in a soft voice. “I can only hear parts of what is being spoke in there once I have to concentrate on the person in front of me. Also, inform me what appointments I have, so I can prepare.”

They nodded and left, but only a moment later as Faramir settled down on the pillows, Lôkhî’s head reappeared. “You have a visitor already – that fellow Muzîn,” he whispered. “Couldn’t wait to meet you in private, it seems,” he added with a smirk and a wink, before withdrawing again. Faramir readjusted the veil and cleared his throat quietly. This was going to be interesting.

Muzîn stepped into the tent, almost hitting his head on the low-hanging lamp which was casting many-coloured specks of light on the canvas walls. He cast a glance around before his eyes came to rest on Faramir, who did not look up but simply gestured to the Umbarian to sit down. “Cosy,” Muzîn commented as he lowered himself onto the pillows, flashing his opposite a smile. “My apologies for my … disruption of your performance. You were right, it takes some gut to face flying daggers like that.”

“You understand I had to interfere before my companion was forced to throw,” said Faramir, finally fixing his opposite with a long and steady gaze.

Muzîn waved a hand. “Certainly, certainly. It was quite a bold stroke of you to address me directly, but then of course you value your life like everybody else. And surely you know why I did it, don’t you?”

“You wanted to annoy your host by sabotaging one of the entertainments he had organised for his guests,” Faramir stated evenly. “And yet changed tactics when you had almost succeeded. Interesting. You overstepped the mark a little there, Muzîn, but you realised it just in time. Then of course Marek is not someone you want as your enemy. But you are not sure if you want him as your friend, either. He can be a dangerous ally.”

Muzîn’s eyes narrowed while a faint smile was playing about his lips. He reached up to stroke his neatly trimmed beard and moustache thoughtfully. “You do speak your mind, don’t you? I daresay you repaid me deftly in front of the others. Almost got me into trouble, you did.”

“Trouble you invited yourself.”

“Yes. Foolish me,” he admitted, still watching Faramir thoughtfully, his dark eyes glinting. It almost looked if he was trying to decide whether to avenge himself on the fortune-teller for the public reprimand he had received. He did not strike Faramir as a man to suffer personal insult lightly, if at all. Tension grew at they looked at each other, before, suddenly, Muzîn’s expression changed. He relaxed and even smiled again.

“Well, lady, since you seem to know your business, do tell me, why am I here? Surely you can foresee what questions I’m going to ask. But I warn you. I don’t believe in fortune-tellers and soothsayers as a rule. So have a care of what you claim to have seen of my future.”

“Of course you believe only in what you can see and hear,” said Faramir, still speaking evenly, but with a hint of amusement now. He had frequently heard claims like this during the past days. “And yet you carry a silver good-luck charm round your neck, and have another tattooed on the back of your hand.”

“Are you making fun of me, woman?” Muzîn inquired with a trace of threat in his voice, slipping his sleeve over his left hand to hide the tattoo.

“I only state facts. You do not have to believe in what I tell you. Just listen, and decide for yourself whether I hit truth or fancy.” Taking out a small bag of brocaded silk, he opened it and poured a selection of small shells and pebbles into his hand. Pretending to murmur a spell, he shook them and cast them on the low table. For a moment he seemed to study them, before speaking in a low voice, “The main reason for visiting me is curiosity, because you do not know what to make of my person. Few people have so far dared to stand up to you like I have done during our performance, and this fact intrigued you. Now you wonder if I may indeed know some advice concerning your further dealings with Al-Jahmîr.”

A sharper intake of breath betrayed Muzîn’s agitation – albeit guarded – at the mention of this name, indicating to Faramir that he was on the right track. “You are not the first to inquire about Marek Al-Jahmîr,” he went on, “nor are you going to be the last. Concerning his concrete plans for the future, you had better asked himself. But as for the colour of his future, and of all those associated with him …” He let his voice trail off ominously.

Muzîn leaned closer. “Yes? What of his future?”

“It is black. And brief,” said Faramir, not having to act to sound convincing.

“What does that mean?” came the excited question. “The tarks are going to win, then? It would be advisable to join their side rather than the Snake’s, yes?”

Faramir shook his head slightly. Most certainly he did not wish to have people like Muzîn on his side, despite hoping to dissuade him from forming an alliance with Al-Jahmîr. “Be careful who you ally yourself to,” he therefore stated simply.

“Yes, yes, of course. I wouldn’t want to get associated with the tarks if I could help it. But the Snake is going to fall, yes? You read that in the stars, didn’t you? Or in those things there?” He pointed at the shells and stones.

Faramir inclined his head, neither nodding nor shaking it. “Common sense,” he replied simply, upon which Muzîn laughed. “You do put things plainly. Guess you have listened to the rumours like everybody else. So, things don’t look too well indeed for Marek? Hah, I knew it! Leaned himself a little far out of the window, didn’t he? Unless of course he’s got something special up his sleeve. I heard he was going to announce something along the lines tonight. All that talk about the oxen and their yoke. That’s what I’m here for, you see. Surely not to see him boast with his wealth, most of which is stolen anyway. Neither to hear him brag about how he managed to annoy the tarks again.”

“You want to evaluate if there is anything in his plans profitable for yourself,” observed Faramir.

“Exactly. Although I daresay that woman he caught, the golden-haired one from the North, she is quite stunning. If there’s one thing I envy him for, it’s her. And he even got her with child.” He paused, shaking his head slightly. “Poor thing. He’s old enough to be her father.”

“The child is not his.”

Muzîn raised an eyebrow. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The Umbarian grinned. He seemed in excellent spirits of a sudden. “How do you know, I wonder? Chatted with her late husband in the ghost-world recently? I heard Marek had him shot before her eyes, and that his spirit is still out there, haunting the Snake. Nonsense, if you ask me, but a good story nonetheless. People like tales of that kind. Most likely Marek’s archers simply missed. I heard he messed up killing that particular tark before. So why not now? The Snake’s not the father of that child, is he?”

“A simple matter of calculation,” said Faramir, rather amused by the change of topic.

It appeared Muzîn was indeed doing some counting, because his grin broadened. “You’re right. Well, of course you are.” His expression changed, and he became serious and businesslike again. Again he gave Faramir a long glance, intent and searching, as if trying to descry his features behind the veil. “You are a remarkable woman,” he said quietly. “I have never met the like of you before.”

Faramir was glad the veil hid his smile. I bet you have not, he thought.

“Do you really hail from the desert?” Muzîn went on thoughtfully. “You know, you should accompany me back to Umbar. People there would be thrilled to see your performance. Interesting people, you know. Influencial people. It would be a much more profitable place than this obscure little village here. And if, as you say, Marek’s future is short and unpromising, well, there are alternatives.”

Again he flashed Faramir a smile, and this time even went as far as to reach for his hand. Relieved that he was wearing gloves, Faramir gently took the hand with his other and set it aside.

“This is a most gracious invitation, Muzîn, but I shall have to decline. My fate leads me elsewhere. And so does yours.”

The other seemed unappeased by the refusal. “Perhaps we should discuss the matter in a more … private setting,” he prompted.

Now Faramir could not help but laugh softly. “Even more private? You would find me little to your taste. Still, it speaks for you not to judge a woman by her looks alone – although the consorts seemed to have captured your eye and your imagination. You came here for my advice. Take it, then. Concentrate on them.”

“This is what you counsel me?” asked Muzîn. If he truly felt disappointment, he did not show it. “Ah well, I’ve heard less pleasant advice in the past. Still, in case you change your mind about Umbar …”

“I know where to find you,” Faramir finished the sentence. “For now, you should return to the high table, enjoy the entertainments and the consorts’ attentions, and stay away from the Snake himself. Those associated with him will join him in his downfall. But do not make him your enemy, either, not openly, at least. Play along, and give the impression of a well-pleased guest. And hope you can weather the storm that is coming from the North.”

Having spoken with some finality, he gave Muzîn a nod, indicating that their session was at an end. Slowly, the other rose, giving Faramir a bow. “Thank you, lady. I hope you do indeed change your mind – my invitation still stands.” With a nod of his head and another smile, he left, to be replaced by Lôkhî shortly afterwards.

“There are more people waiting to see you,” he announced. Lowering his voice and leaning close, he added, “What was this all about? Couldn’t help overhearing a little. Did he imply what I think he did? Either your disguise is really good, or else that man has queer tastes.”

“I should prefer not to reflect about it. Actually, I think Marek just lost another potential ally,” replied Faramir. “Anything of interest passing outside?”

“Nay, just people slithering up to the Snake and telling him what a splendid fellow and most excellent host he is. The ground round the high table must be all slippery from their slime. ”

“What about Éowyn? Any indication she recognised us?”

“She looks rather bored – or pretends to be so –, and no wonder. Her one neighbour is having himself celebrated, and her other slipped away, most likely to find himself something to calm his nerves. Young Khazen seems to have a little problem with certain substances – or rather, the lack of them.”

“Interesting. Can you find out which ones?”

“Sure. Ah, here come your next customers. A lady this time. The Snake’s daughter-in-law.” With that, he slipped out of the tent. Faramir swiftly gathered up the shells and stones again and put them in the bag. The curtains moved, and Inzilbêth stepped inside. She approached hesitantly, not hiding a certain nervousness. His curiosity aroused, Faramir invited her to sit with a measured gesture.

“Lady Inzilbêth,” he greeted her warmly, to ease her nervousness, “it is an honour to meet you. Your little daughter is giving you much joy, I can see that.”

The young woman gave Faramir a bright smile, not hiding the surprise she felt at his knowledge. He continued, lowering his already soft voice. “You have come to inquire about one you loved once – and love still,” he ventured.

She actually gave a gasp of surprise. “How do you know?” she whispered, gazing at him imploringly as if fearing he would rise and tell her secret to the crowd.

Knowing he had established his credibility beyond doubt, Faramir reached out to pat her hand reassuringly. “Do not fear. Your secret remains safe with me. Although you must be aware that your association with him is not as great a secret as you may think. The young man courted you publicly. People know that. What they do not know is that you met him only recently.”

“But you know it,” she breathed, shocked and fascinated at the same time.

“Yes, I do. I also know that he took your words to heart. He is sorely disappointed, but he begins to understand that things have changed between you, and will never be the same again. It will take him a while longer to accept it, but eventually he will.”

“Is he still angry with me?” she asked anxiously.

“He never really was angry with you. He just had the hope which had sustained him during the past years shattered. Most of his present anger is directed at himself, and at a relative who he rightly blames for his misfortune.”

She nodded slowly. Then biting her lip as another worry seemed to have struck her, she asked, “He’s in danger, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Faramir replied. He was tempted to add, “But so are you all,” yet restrained himself. There was a lot he wished to tell the Snake’s daughter-in-law, and even more he wanted to ask her, but he knew it would be unwise to upset her. It would raise questions and cast suspicion upon himself should she disclose what she had exchanged with the fortune-teller. Therefore, he continued, “But he is used to it, and knows how to deal with it. He would not want you to worry about him.”

Pausing to let his words be absorbed by her, he watched her. When Azrahil had spoken of her, she had always seemed like a sweet little girl, pretty and free of care. Perhaps that was how she had been before her forced marriage to Adûnakhôr. Or perhaps this was just an idealised image Narejde’s son had sustained over the years. She was pretty indeed, and even as a young mother had a certain girlishness about her, but at the same time he noticed an inner strength and maturity that gave him hope she would manage to cope with the troubled times that lay ahead for all of them.

She had been thinking quietly, and now reached for his hand in turn. “Yes, I think you are right. He seemed to get along when I last saw him. I thank you. You are a wise lady.”

“I am sorry I could not give you any more pleasant tidings,” he replied gravely.

She gave him a quick smile. Then she cocked her head, giving him a thoughtful glance. “You’re different than the other fortune-tellers. They only tell you what they think you wish to hear. But you … I think you can really gaze into the future. And you tell people the truth, whether it’s pleasant or not. Oh, and how you managed to face those dreadful daggers … I think I would have fainted for fright.”

“I doubt that. You are much braver than you believe, Inzilbêth. Do not let people make you forget that.”

“I won’t,” she said, smiling more confidently now. “Yet in comparison to you or the Lady Éowyn I’m not brave at all. You know of her?”

“Certainly. She helped at the birth of your baby,” he stated, touched by the gentleness in the young mother’s voice while referring to his wife.

“You know that, too?” Inzilbêth asked surprisedly. “Yes, you’re right. She’s a great help with Dala. There are so many things I don’t know yet, and she’s got three children already.” Her expression turned sad and her voice quiet. “She must miss them terribly. They’re so little still, and so far away. But you know, she has borne everything with so much … so much courage. Being away from her children all the time, and from her husband. For some time she even believed him slain. She tried not to show it, but I noticed how deeply she mourned him. She must love him very much. I should like to meet him one day.”

Faramir smiled gently behind his veil. What she had said about Éowyn had touched him. Hoping for more information to come, he did not interrupt her. She had fallen silent, but then, as if a new thought had come up, of a sudden she frowned.

“And what they have done to her. She was shot at, and she fell from that horse. And then they even put her in prison. And threatened her baby. Can you believe that? And those filthy consorts, they continue to tease her. Brainless creatures. But I think deep down they’re just jealous because she is so much braver than all of them together. And more desirable.”

Gazing at Faramir, she asked, “Will her husband come and free her? He must be so worried about her. Oh, I was so stupid. I should have told Azrahil how she was faring.”

“You had other matters on your mind then,” said Faramir. As much as he yearned to hear more about his wife’s sojourn at the castle, especially about her imprisonment, he knew he must not inquire more closely lest he threatened his disguise.

Inzilbêth gave a nod. “Yes indeed. Now it’s unlikely that I will be allowed to leave the castle again, with security this tight. Ah, I wish all of this would end soon.”

“As do all involved,” stated Faramir.

There was a moment of silence, before she stirred. “I have to leave now. I hope we will have an opportunity to talk longer. Will you be here still tomorrow? Maybe we could meet again then. Thank you.” She rose and curtsied. Before she left, however, she turned once more to Faramir, suddenly looking girlish and careless, smiling brightly. “You know, that dress you wear, it’s very beautiful. The colour suits you so well.”

“Thank you,” he replied before he could help it, having to smile about himself.

“You should have seen the consorts, and listened to their comments. Not very favourable, but only because they were jealous again.” She snorted. “They don’t have much use for dresses that actually fit, and perhaps cover a bit of the body, don’t they? When we talk again, you can tell me where you’ve had it made. I’ll have word send to you, yes?”

He bowed his head. “Thank you, my lady.” She gave him a final smile and departed.

He barely had time to think about what he had just heard when the curtains stirred again and Lôkhî announced an elderly noble by the name of Khadzôr, one of the desert-lords by his looks. Faramir had never heard about him. He was about to question his companion concerning information when Mezlâr, too, stuck his head inside the tent. He looked worried.
“You need not bother with this Khadzôr,” he whispered rapidly. “The Snake himself is approaching. I doubt he is going to mind the queue.”

“Bugger,” muttered Lôkhî. “You think you’ll manage?”

“Yes,” replied Faramir. “I do not have much of a choice, have I?”

“We’ll be close by,” said the small man reassuringly. Mezlâr nodded. “There is something else. Before he left the table, Marek was accosted by the captain of his guard, this Aurens. I doubt he would have come without good reason. I would hazard the distraction is under way, because Marek did not look too pleased after Aurens had finished his report, and sent him off immediately.”

Thanking him for the valuable information, Faramir watched his two companions withdraw. Taking several deep breaths, he tried to calm himself as best as possible. This, then, was going to be the real test of his disguise. If Al-Jahmîr managed to recognise him … – no, he decided sternly, he would not allow him to. He was good at what he was doing. The past days had proven that. He would not give himself away, would neither endanger himself nor his friends, nor Éowyn. And he would give bloody Al-Jahmîr something to think about – to think, and to worry.

The curtains swayed and the coloured lamp was sent swinging as Marek Al-Jahmîr entered the tent. Faramir waited before he had taken in his surroundings before raising his eyes to look at him. Despite his self-control, he had expected some kind of emotion to surge through him at the sight. But his blood ran cold. He took in the elaborate garments and neatly groomed hair, beard and hands, recalling he had seen the Lord of Ihimbra in far more dishevelled states. He also noted the precious rings and jewelled clasps of his tunic which glittered in the coloured light. Vain as a peacock, he thought contemptuously. Perhaps you should also have invested your stolen wealth in those creams and powders some women use to hide the signs of age, for, Marek, you have aged. Stress and fear do not become you. Be sure to experience much more of that in the time to come!

“Lord Al-Jahmîr,” he greeted his enemy softly. “What an unexpected honour. Do take a seat.” He was surprised how calm his voice sounded, when during their last encounter he had not managed to speak a word out of agitation. Back then, wild hatred had coursed inside him like poison. Now he was perfectly controlled, even confident, feeling neither fear nor hatred. This was not the place nor time for revenge. Not openly, at least. He would try and unsettle the Snake further if he could, but do it subtly, lest his true identity become known.

And if things truly went awry – well, they were alone in the tent. The Snake’s guards were out of sight and earshot. Al-Jahmîr was wearing an ornate dagger at his belt, but Faramir knew he would reach his own much swifter if the need arose. The knowledge strengthened his confidence. If the Snake truly knew the danger he was in … it was a thought of grim pleasure that for once he had the upper hand. The strangeness of the situation struck him, and he smiled behind his veil. He was sitting opposite his enemy, in his very castle, clad in this ridiculous dress with his face painted, and nevertheless he was in control of the situation. And if he survived it, he would make sure the Snake learned of the encounter.

As slowly Al-Jahmîr lowered himself onto the pillows, all the time gazing intently at Faramir, the Dúnadan recalled Lôkhî’s wish to spread the tale about the true identity of the entertainers. He would provide the little man with a good tale to tell, a tale to deal a heavy blow to the Snake’s reputation. For now, he was observing his enemy closely. He showed no signs of recognition. Rather, he seemed curious. “I do not recall Ranak giving your names,” he stated, his dark eyes still fixed on Faramir’s veiled face.

Faramir smiled. “And what would a name be to you? I have many names in many places,” he replied, with courtesy, yet also with the clear implication that no more information would be gained from him in the matter.

“Many identities, too, it seems,” Al-Jahmîr commented thoughtfully. “People don’t seem to know where to place you. Many rumours are making the round. Some say you are a tark, others claim you hail from the Far Harad, and still others say you are an Elf.”

“Which is exactly how I would have it.”

“You don’t want to tell me? You’re very tall for a woman, and there is something about you … Are you an Elf?”

“If I told you yes or no, how would you decide I was speaking the truth? You have never met one.”

His eyes narrowed. Faramir knew he had stated a fact, because he had gained the information during one of their games of chess on Tolfalas. “You did not come to sate your curiosity about my identity, Marek.”

“No? Why then should I have come?” inquired the Snake. “I’m not superstitious,” he added.

“Nobody admits they are. You did not choose this particular date for your feast because it is under a lucky constellation of stars, then? And the ornamentation of your tunic, displaying a pattern commonly believed to bring good fortune in risky ventures? A mere coincidence?”

He smiled at the other’s surprised expression. This was going even better than he had hoped. He decided to add yet another challenge, to test how far he could go. “I commend you on your foresight, Marek. Sometimes, it is wise to invite all the luck you can, superstition or no. It pays to be prepared for all eventualities.” He paused, fixing the Snake’s gaze in his, glad about the dim illumination of the pavilion that changed the colour of his eyes, causing them to look dark and mysterious. “I daresay you will need all the luck you can get in the times to come, and more.”

There was a brief but dangerous glint in the Snake’s eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?” he demanded, rather forcefully. “Is this going to be one of those gloomy predictions of doom and hardship?”

“Would you prefer me to lie to you? What purpose would that serve? Either, you are interested in learning about your future, or you better leave. I tell fortunes, not bright and happy stories.”

“So my future is not bright and happy?” inquired Al-Jahmîr, his voiced raised a little. Faramir knew he ran the danger of annoying him, and decided to proceed a little more carefully.

“According to your own suspicions, it is not,” he replied. “You know things are not running as smoothly as you would have them. You have fortified your castle against attack from without and escape from within, and yet you fear that security will not suffice against what is inevitably going to assail you. Already a mighty fleet is drawing near to your shores. And worse than the fleet and the hosts from the North, there is an enemy close by waiting to strike.”

“This is no secret,” interrupted Al-Jahmîr. “Every child in town could have told me that.”

“Certainly. Children often know more than the adults do, because they keep their eyes and ears open. But no child would know how dangerously close your enemies are.”

“Close?” the other asked quickly, and Faramir was pleased to detect a trace of anxiety in the Snake’s voice, despite the Umbarian trying to keep it in check. “You mean here, in the castle?”

Knowing he was hazarding a guess only, and aware of the danger, “Did not your captain just inform you about a disturbance?” he stated evenly. Al-Jahmîr’s eyes widened. Whatever he had thought about the fortune-teller’s abilities before, he appeared to be taking her more seriously now. Or else, he was beginning to develop suspicion.

“What do you know about that?” asked Al-Jahmîr swiftly. “And how do you know it?” he added dangerously. “Who tells me you are not part of it? Indeed, who tells me you don’t belong to these thieves, and are part of their plan?”

“Your better judgement tells you. Would I tell you about the incident and thus betray my companions? I only follow my trade. What would I gain by annoying my host, especially while sitting opposite him? I depend on your good will, like everybody else in this castle.”

“So you would not ally yourself with the tarks?” the other inquired shrewdly.

“My only allies are my two companions. We roam the lands freely, going wherever people appreciate our performance. We do not seek strife or war, and we are not interested in politics, we do not differentiate between North and South, East and West. We simply wish to pursue our arts.”

Al-Jahmîr nodded slowly, not entirely convinced, apparently. “Nevertheless, you seem well informed about politics in these parts,” he prompted, watching Faramir keenly.

“Being well informed is part of my business,” the Dúnadan replied.

“I see. And what about … magic?” He uttered the last word almost contemptuously.

“Some people prefer a bit of glamour to straight talk. But you are none of those. You are not fooled by a cast of shells and stones, and my interpretation of their pattern. You know how these things work, Marek. You claim not to be superstitious, yet you have come to listen to what I may counsel you concerning your present plight with your enemy – because you hope that I may see things that you do not, and make links you cannot since you are too deeply involved. Your emotions cloud your judgement. You know that often an outsider can see the broader pattern of and the faulty thread in the carpet much more clearly than the weaver himself, and can disperse counsel accordingly. And there is a matter in which you desire counsel and a clearer view most urgently.”

Al-Jahmîr raised an eyebrow questioningly. Faramir could tell that his little speech had intrigued the other. Now, he decided, it was time for a more offensive approach.

“Your greatest worry concerns your enemy. You did not manage to kill him – again,” he stated. “And now you are frightened. Why this look of denial? You are afraid, because you know he will not stop until he has recovered what you stole. I need not read in the stars to come to this conclusion. I simply listen, and watch, and think. If you have come for advice how to fight him, I can give you none. I am no warrior, and no politician. Perhaps in this case it would be advisable to trust to fortune indeed. Or do the one thing that may save your neck.”

“And what would that be?”

“Return what you have unlawfully taken, and run. Run fast and far, and hope to hide all your traces.”

Al-Jahmîr snorted. Faramir thought he knew that the other was thinking of the suggestion.
He gave a little shrug. “A choice between your life and your reputation, Marek,” he suggested evenly. “Which will it be?”

The Snake gave a cold laugh. “Those ‘laws’ you refer to, they don’t apply here. I won’t return my prize. She belongs to me now. And in a while she will come to accept this, too. She will realise that her husband won’t take her back, for even he must have some pride. The Steward of Gondor cannot afford to be associated with an adulteress. She will stay, to spare him the shame.”

Despite his self-control, Faramir felt the words grate, and he had to restrain himself from uttering a fierce reply. Al-Jahmîr had spoken with conviction, yet it had been a conviction well-rehearsed. He was not as certain of the matter as he would have it. Therefore, “Is not her husband going great lengths to free her?” he prompted. “Do you believe he would do that, constantly risking his own life, if he was not convinced he would win her back? Has he not defied death repeatedly in order to either return to her, or now to rescue her? Would he do that if he believed she had betrayed him? Do you not think he knows her better than you do? He knows she would only get associated with you in order to save him, or to save their baby. He knows you will never conquer her, save by force. And then she would have his pity, not his scorn. And his love, always, and despite everything. Marek Al-Jahmîr, I tell you now that those two belong together. It was very unwise of you to interfere with fate. It may be your downfall. And you know it.”

Al-Jahmîr made an angry gesture. “Things do not look as black as you paint them,” he claimed obstinately. “And time will show how she’s going to decide. The longer she stays here, enjoying the luxuries of the castle, the more she will get used to this way of life. And once her child has been born here, she will think twice about leaving to return to her husband – if he is still alive then, which I will do my utmost to prevent. Even he can be killed, and he will.”

Perhaps, but not by you, Snake! thought Faramir with a feeling of grim satisfaction. You had your chances, and you squandered them. You do not even recognise me sitting opposite you, you bloated fool. And next time we meet, places are going to be exchanged, and it shall be my opportunity to strike. And I shall not miss.

“You seem very convinced that you are in control of things,” he said. “Are you sure you are not misled there? Has not even your splendid feast been interrupted by your enemies already?”

The Snake’s eyes narrowed as he was reminded of this fact. “You said they were close,” said Al-Jahmîr, a trace of anxiety suddenly discernable again in his voice. “That they are here. Where are they? Down in the orchards? Who is it?”

“Who do you think it is? Who do believe would dare to make an appearance here? A blue-eyed woman your half-brother once desired – your brother, and perhaps yourself, too? The first woman to refuse you and thus earn your undying hatred. Maybe her son, the blood-traitor as you call him, is there as well, with his dreaded lion. And perhaps even the man you fear most of all.”

Al-Jahmîr’s face displayed a mixture of awe, doubt and suspicion. “How do you know all this?” he asked softly.

“I do not know. Or rather, I did not know until now. I simply described your own hopes, and your own fears, and my own deductions from the observations I made. I seem to be on the right track, judging by your reaction. This is how these things work, you know.”

Al-Jahmîr stared at him. “Who are you?”

“Someone to warn you. You have stepped onto a dangerous road, Marek Al-Jahmîr. It might be a dead end.”

“What? You mean the tarks will win?”

“Possibly. You have great plans and some powerful allies. But so have your enemies. They –” Before he could continue, Faramir was interrupted. The curtains opened and a soldier was admitted by a worried-looking Lôkhî. The man saluted awkwardly in the narrow, low-ceilinged tent. “My lord, my apologies for the disturbance, but Captain Aurens sends me. He said it was urgent. It’s about the intruders. He said you wanted to be informed if –”

Only then he noticed Al-Jahmîr’s warning glance, and indeed the fortune-teller. He blushed, looking nervous, but soon gathered himself. Leaning close to his lord, he whispered something into his ear. Faramir pretended not to listen, while in fact he was trying to catch every word. Thus, he learned that some of the attackers had been recognised. Silently, he rejoiced. This distraction seemed to be working well. At the same time he began to worry about his companions who right now were risking their lives. He hoped they would be careful, especially rash Azrahil.

“Is Aurens sure?” asked Al-Jahmîr sharply, trying to keep his agitation under control. “Did you recognise them beyond doubt.”

“We saw the lion. There’s no way of confusing that beast. We’re rather sure about her master as well, and about the leader of the group. She wore man’s clothes, but there was no mistaking her voice. And we also saw this other man …”

“What other man?” demanded Al-Jahmîr excitedly.

The soldier glanced at the fortune-teller uneasily, but his lord seemed to have forgotten all about her presence. “What other man?” he repeated.

“The one we were told to look out for particularly. He stayed in the background, so we didn’t see him clearly. But what we spotted matched the description.”

Al-Jahmîr actually clapped his hands. “Return there immediately! Aurens knows what is at stake. He must capture these intruders. Alive at best, but if that proves impossible I want all of them slain. The lion, too. I want no failure!”

Intimidated by the sharp tone, the soldier saluted and quickly left the tent. Al-Jahmîr turned to Faramir with an expression of triumph mingled with some faint nervousness. “Your prediction about the intruders’ identities seems to have been right. Which again casts some suspicion on your own motives, doesn’t it? Still, why should you have given them away?” he mused. “Only to frighten me? Well, I’m not easily frightened.”

Faramir refrained from commenting, only smiled wryly.

“Hopefully, we’ll be joined by these particular people this evening – or at least by their bodies,” Al-Jahmîr went on. “What say you to that?”

“You will be joined,” said Faramir plainly.

The other gave him a look of surprise as apparently he had expected another prediction. “Indeed? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The Snake smiled broadly. “So after all you do make pleasant predictions.”

Faramir inclined his head. Depending on how you interpret them, fool, he thought.

“This was a most insightful encounter,” said Al-Jahmîr, rising. He was looking very pleased with himself. “You should take a break and watch the further proceedings of this evening. Surely you will realise then that some of your foreboding predictions were a little off track. Things don’t look as dark for me as you would have them.”

“As I would have them? My own opinion does not play into what I tell people.”

“Is that so? Well, perhaps we should talk again tomorrow, after you have gained some more insight into my plans. This evening should be very enlightening in that respect.”

Most certainly, thought Faramir as he gave his enemy a final nod and watched him leave the tent.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Top
 Profile  
 
Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 89 posts ]  Go to page Previous  1, 2, 3, 4, 5  Next

All times are UTC


Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests


You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group