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PostPosted: Sun 09 Aug , 2009 4:36 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
Faramir waited until Al-Jahmîr’s footsteps were lost in the general din outside the tent before slumping forward with his elbows on the low table. With the tension subsiding, he was beginning to feel the anxiety he had successfully managed to keep in check throughout the encounter. This had been so close! Too close for comfort, he thought as he fought the temptation to reach up, take off the veil and run both hands through his hair and over his face.

What a stroke of luck that the other had not recognised him – if that was indeed the case. He was not out of danger yet. As soon as Al-Jahmîr found time to think more thoroughly about what he had just learned, and the person he had spoken to, Faramir was convinced he would begin to wonder. Wonder, reflect on details, and reach a conclusion. And then, at the latest, he would call for his guards to detain the fortune-teller and her companions, if only for questioning and a closer examination. By which time they must be far away. Indeed, they must not tarry, they had to consider how to leave quickly and inconspicuously. Despite the possibility of gaining valuable information about the Snake’s plans. Despite him yearning, desperately, for a meeting with Éowyn.

Gently, almost tentatively, the curtains swayed as Lôkhî slid inside. For a moment he just stood gazing at Faramir, then he leaned forward and handed him a cup. “Thought you’d need something stronger than water now,” he said, with a smile.

Faramir straightened, and taking the cup carefully sipped from it. It contained the sharp liquor made from aniseed that was popular in these reaches. “Thank you,” he replied, his voice slightly hoarse. He took another sip, then handed the cup back to Lôkhî and reached for the waterskin they had been given instead. The liquor had made him all the more thirsty. “Would you tell the others waiting outside that the fortune-teller needs a break?”

“Done so already. Most have returned to the pavilion anyway. Looks like our most gracious host is going to announce a thing or two. He strutted off with a very important expression. Thought you may want to hear it.”

“Certainly,” replied Faramir, carefully rising to his feet. The tent’s ceiling was too low for him to stand upright. Twice already, he had almost taken down the lamp hanging from the middle when it got caught in his veil. “Did you overhear our conversation?”

Lôkhî nodded with a grave expression that suddenly turned into broad grin. “You can bet on that – while taking care nobody else could overhear you. And what a tale that’s going to make, eh?” he chuckled, slapping Faramir’s shoulder. “I so look forward to spreading it in town. He didn’t recognise you! Sat opposite you, looked you in the eyes, and didn’t have a clue.” He sighed happily. “That’s more splendid than anybody could invent for a tale.”

“He may still draw the right conclusions, rather sooner than later, I fear.”

Lôkhî sobered up a little. “Well, some take a bit longer,” he said confidently. “You’re right, though, it’s going to be doubly dangerous for us now. I know you wish to speak with your lady, but I’m not sure that could be managed.”

Faramir sighed. “I know. If only I could relay a message. I am not certain she recognised me. In fact, I am not sure I would like her too. I do not wish to add to her worries. Knowing I am here would only cause her anxiety, especially after our performance and the Snake’s visit. I doubt she would approve.”

“Of your attendance or your attire?” asked Lôkhî with a wink.

“Both, I reckon. She would think we are not taking the situation seriously, dressing up funnily. Risking our lives for a brief visit only, as we have no plan for actually freeing her.” As the thought struck, he frowned, as he had not considered it before.

“What indeed should I tell her?” he inquired, more of himself. “That we have come to see if she is well? She may not be anymore once the Snake finds out we attended his party. He will think her in the know, and punish her. Apparently she has had to endure hardship for the last time we –”

“Still,” interrupted Lôkhî, “we need more information about her and her condition, and about Marek’s plans. And we managed to get inside, so here’s our opportunity. And as for her, aye, so maybe she’ll be angry with you, but only for an instant, I warrant. And after that, she’ll be grateful to see you.”

“So you think we should try and meet? Despite the danger? After all, there are others here for the gathering of information. This close encounter with Al-Jahmîr has made things all the more perilous for the three of us. And I dread to think of what may happen to her, if the Snake learns the truth about us, and makes her pay for it.”

“Yes his visit was unfortunate, despite the great tale it’ll make. Still, quitting the party like that won’t have been worth all the effort we put into getting invited in the first place. Not to mention dressing up like this. And come on, don’t tell me you’re going to manage to leave just so, without even exchanging a few words with your beloved. I know you by now, better than you think. And guess what I’ve learned in the past weeks? That you can be bloody reckless for one so cautious and controlled. And bloody brave for a tark.”

“Reckless?” Faramir raised an eyebrow, before conceding, “yes, perhaps. But only when my own life is at stake.”

Lôkhî looked up at him thoughtfully. “Let’s have a look outside, shall we, and see what’s going on there,” he suggested. “We’re going to miss lordship’s speech otherwise.”

Faramir nodded, still undecided about what further course to take. His mind told him to leave as quickly as possible, while his heart urged him to stay. “Yes, we need to hear what Marek has to declare,” he agreed. “He promised it was going to be interesting.”

“Let’s hope he’s not going to disappoint,” commented Lôkhî. Holding open the curtains for Faramir, “After you, lady,” he said, with a gallant bow.

+

Outside, the commotion had indeed died down. Most guests had returned to the pavilion and their seats. The servants were making rounds with sweets, fruit and drinks while people were settling down again. Éowyn was still seated at the high table, and seemed to be glancing about searchingly. Who was she looking for? The Snake? Then her eyes found the fortune-teller, and Faramir knew. She was too far away for him to read her expression, but he thought she looked relieved and anxious at the same time. And the intensity of her gaze left him in no doubt. She had recognised him. The thought both pleased and worried him. She had not even seen him up close like the Snake, and yet she had not been deceived by his disguise, showing how well she truly knew him. But then again, perhaps the disguise was not that good after all. And now that she knew he was here, how could he leave without meeting her?

Their silent exchange of glances was interrupted by the return of Aurens. To Faramir’s alarm, he saw Al-Jahmîr talk to the captain of his guard, who swiftly left with a grave expression. Was this because of the entertainers, or their friends outside the castle? He cast a quick glance at Lôkhî who likewise looked tense and worried. Gazing about guardedly, Faramir spotted Mezlâr in conversation with Khorazîr, seemingly about the selection of sweets the “servant” was carrying on a platter. Presently, the guard came over, having relieved Khorazîr of the sweets.

“Apparently Marek has something big planned for tonight,” he said in a low voice, holding up the platter for his companions. “Rumour goes that he wants to set an example of what he has in mind for the tarks and their allies. It is not clear what this implies. Our friends appear to be safe still. In fact, things down beyond the walls seem to be going rather well for them as they are playing hide and seek with Aurens’ soldiers.”

“Did you learn what orders Aurens just received?” inquired Faramir, helping himself to one of the white, almond-studded squares.

Mezlâr gave a brief nod. “The … er … servant believes it has nothing to do with us or our friends. Rather, it appears to be something Marek wants to show his guests. Must be important, and perhaps even dangerous, otherwise someone else would have been entrusted with it and not the Captain of Guard himself.”

“Nothing pleasant, by Aurens’ expression,” mused Faramir while taking a bite of the dessert under the veil. It was quite good, although rather sticky, and extremely sweet.

“Speaking of soldiers,” added Lôkhî with a nod towards a couple of guards standing near the entrance of the pavilion, “looks like we have acquired our personal pair of footpads. Apparently Marek wants to make sure we don’t engage in any mischief.”

“It will be no problem to get rid of them,” stated Mezlâr grimly.

“They are not the only ones,” cautioned Faramir after a guarded scan of their surroundings. “There are at least two more, and they are not wearing the Snake’s livery. The one talking to Ranak, and the tall brown-skinned one tending to the lanterns in the fig-tree. They have been watching us closely ever since we left the tent.”

“Yes, I know,” said Mezlâr. “But we are not the only ones they keep an eye on. Several of the guests are being observed by them, too. It seems Marek trusts few of his ‘friends’.”

“If they are indeed his men,” mused Faramir. “Several of the lords and ladies assembled here have brought their own retinue, and their own guards. There appears to be more mistrust and enmity that even Marek anticipates.”

As he was speaking, he became aware of a servant approaching them. He was not clad like the servants of Ihimbra, but wore loose-fitting light-blue garments of the desert-peoples that contrasted with his brown skin. He was a young man, not very tall, but slender and agile. The way he moved indicated he was only playing the servant. Faramir suspected his true profession to be either a highly trained personal guard, or an assassin. A quick glance at Mezlâr told him that his companion had noted him, too, and was eyeing him cautiously.

The man bowed courteously. “My lady, please forgive the intrusion, but my master wishes to speak with you urgently,” he addressed Faramir, speaking Adûnaic but with a thick desert accent, very similar to the one Faramir had acquired for his part.

“May I inquire who your master is?” he asked, guardedly.

“He is the Lord Fuad Al-Asad, of the Great Dunes. He awaits you at the fountain near the sand sculpture. My name is Husam.”

“Please tell your master that I do not read any more fortunes for tonight, Husam,” said Faramir, watching the man closely. He dimly recalled having heard his master’s name before, but could not remember under what circumstances. It seemed a long time ago, and not linked to Al-Jahmîr in any way. Still, the invitation was strange. He knew the fountain. Most likely the place would be quite deserted now while everybody was waiting for Al-Jahmîr to make his speech. Why the secrecy, then? And if he left now, he would neither hear the Snake’s announcement nor see what he had planned for the evening. Nor would he be able to watch Éowyn anymore, and lose any opportunity to devise a meeting. What if she had left when he returned?

Husam seemed to notice Faramir’s reluctance and doubt. He took a step closer, causing Mezlâr to reach for one of his daggers. Lowering his voice, he said, “This is not about reading fortunes. My master wishes to speak with you privately, and wishes to do so now while the other guests are being entertained.”

“There is no privacy here tonight,” stated Faramir, his suspicion growing, “not in this entire castle.”

The man eyed him shrewdly. “Lord Al-Asad said you might be reluctant,” he said very softly, so that only Faramir could catch his words. “He said you might not wish to leave now, when you can watch your enemy, and you … wife.” He paused at the last word, smiling very faintly, despite not being able to see Faramir’s reaction under his veil. The Dúnadan barely managed to hide his surprise, and alarm.

“But Lord Al-Asad also said it would be important for you to come,” Husam continued. “Profitable, even. And dangerous to stay away. Oh, and you may bring your guard. My master intends no harm. If you come.” With that he bowed again, stepping back. “This way, lady,” he said, loud again and almost cheerfully, beckoning to Faramir and Mezlâr to follow him.

“What’s going on?” asked Lôkhî in alarm as the two, reluctantly, prepared to leave.

“We have a problem,” said Mezlâr grimly.

“Indeed we have,” said Faramir. “It seems that his master, some Lord Al-Asad, knows my identity. He has more or less blackmailed me into meeting him. Inform our special servant. Mezlâr and I are going to meet Al-Asad at the fountain near the sand sculpture. I do not know what his purpose is, but the fact he chose a more or less private spot, and for this particular time, seems to indicate it is a meeting he does not want Al-Jahmîr to know about. Try to remember every word of the Snake’s speech, and have an eye on Éowyn.”

“I shall. Be careful.”

+

Choosing those paths only dimly lit by torches and lanterns, Husam led the two round the pavilion in a wide arch. Faramir looked out and listened for any pursuit, either by Al-Jahmîr’s people or more guards from Al-Asad, but the only folk he detected were two couples who had withdrawn into the sweet-smelling bushes, and a strong-voiced woman chiding two young servants over a couple of expensive glasses that apparently had landed on the floor instead of the lord’s table.

The sand sculpture was impressive, and had drawn a lot of excited spectators throughout the day. Now, the two ships engaged in a sea-battle where illuminated by coloured lamps, which were set so that the Umbarian ship was more brightly lit than the other, the Gondorian vessel, which appeared to be losing the fight anyway. But now the sculpture was deserted, as was the paved, circular place of the fountain. From the sculpture, it was reached by a short descent of broad steps, and it was surrounded by flower-beds behind which bushes of triplet-flowers and oleander grew like a wall. Only few lanterns hung in the bushes, causing the waters of the fountain to take on a faintly golden hue. A man sat on the stone rim of the circular basin, watching the fish and water lilies, or so it appeared. Faramir was certain that in truth he was gazing at them with great interest.

He seemed to be alone, and neither the surrounding bushes nor the flowerbeds indicated any disturbance by a person hiding behind the tall plants. Moreover, Faramir did not sense anybody observing them, and usually he could rely on his senses. As they drew nearer, the man rose and turned towards them. He was of medium height and slender build, like many of the desert people. His garments were similar to those of his servant, both in cut and colour, but the cloth was more precious: his over-garments were of silk instead of light wool, and the ornaments on his belt were of silver, opal and small pearls, the latter surely expensive and difficult to come by in the desert. His face was dark, of the weather-beaten, leathery brown of the desert-tribes. Neither he nor Husam wore any tattoos. His hair and beard, short and curly, were tinged with grey, despite him not seeming much older than Faramir. He did not wear any weapons openly, yet Faramir was certain that there was a dagger or even a scimitar hidden underneath his wide burnous. Even though he saw the strange lord now, his name did not make any more sense to him. He could not recall having ever met this man before. What, then, could he possibly want, apart from blackmailing him for a ransom? And how had he found out about his true identity, when even Éowyn had not recognised him immediately?

Al-Asad smiled as they approached, but it was the cautious, guarded smile of a man who knows how to keep his emotions under control. He gave Husam an appreciative nod as the man stepped over to him, to then take up a position next to his master, indicating plainly now his true profession as a personal guard.

“A good evening to you,” the desert-lord greeted them. He spoke softly, his Adûnaic only faintly accented. Either, he had spent much time in the coastal regions of the South where the language was more common, or else he had had a good teacher. “I am pleased you agreed to come.”

“’Tis not that I had much of a choice, after what Husam indicated would happen otherwise,” returned Faramir curtly, not in the mood for exchanging pleasantries.

“Oh, I hope he did not threaten you,” Al-Asad said pleasantly with a gaze at his guard. “Only, I told him it was important for you to come, and that he had to convince you somehow to leave the … entertainments, for lack of a better description. I am sorry to deprive you of the most beautiful sight you enjoyed there, and if we can believe him, an important announcement from our dear host.”

“What is this all about?” asked Faramir.

“Not so impatient, dear lady – or should I say lord?” said Al-Asad, settling down on the rim of the basin again, by the tone of his voice clearly enjoying himself. This did not endear him to Faramir. Nevertheless, he stepped over, and gathering together the folds of his dress, took the seat the other was indicating.

“I am convinced there are a number of questions you would like to ask me,” the Haradan began. “But before you begin, let me assure you that I will not reveal your identity to Marek. Why, the man sat opposite you in that tent and did not recognise you. Who am I, then, to enlighten him? So fear not. Even though my invitation may have sounded like blackmail, I told Husam to be so direct, for else you would not have come. Am I right?”

“Probably,” Faramir admitted, watching the other closely while trying to determine the man’s purpose. He was not able to detect any deceit, however veiled, in the other’s tone or expression. Suspicion remained, however, and extreme caution. Knowing so little about the other, who in turn appeared to have much information about him made him feel vulnerable, and he did not like it.

“Well, I am pleased you proved cooperative,” said Al-Asad, “in this respect at least, and did not try and deny your true identity. You need not trouble about your voice and accent, either – although I am impressed by your acting skills. We are not being overheard. My people made sure of that.”

“How did you find out who I am? You cannot have recognised me. We have never met before.”

“True, that we have not. But I admit looking out for you, ever since the abduction of your wife. Indeed, ever since I heard you were journeying in the Harad. When the tidings made the round that you had been slain, I did not believe them, and sent out men to look out for you. One of them is a corsair, on a certain Captain Azrubâr’s ship. From him I soon learned you were alive still. My informants lost track of you then, for a while, until one spotted you in Ihimbra town.”

“I always wore disguise in Ihimbra,” said Faramir with a frown.

“Ah, yes, and what a pretty disguise it is. But the informant watched you closely for a while, entertaining a certain suspicion about your person: that you were a man in women’s guise – and she guessed right. I believe she saw you at the window of that inn one night, without the veil for once yet wearing the dress.”

“You seem to have a most efficient net of spies and informants.”

Al-Asad smiled broadly, his teeth white in his brown face. “I am very proud of it. And now you wonder why I entertain it in the first place?”

“With a neighbour like Al-Jahmîr?” Faramir shrugged. “Actually, not too much. But why have you been looking out for me? And what do you want from me now?”

“A long story, too long to tell here and now. But the short version is: we have a mutual friend. Or rather, he is your friend. Me, I believe he does not remember so fondly, if he remembers me at all. It has been a long time since last we met. But I still consider myself in his debt, and should like to repay it – if not to him, then perhaps to his friend who appears to be in dire need right now.”

Faramir’s eyes narrowed as he watched him. Where had he heard the name before? Who was this ‘friend’ Al-Asad was referring to? Then an idea struck him.

“You mean Túrin?” he ventured.

The other slapped the rim of the basin, smiling. “Ah, yes, that was his northern name. I had forgotten. He went by another amongst us, as you can imagine.”

Now things fell into place. “You were the man who bought him and brought him to the desert, as a slave,” said Faramir, trying to recall everything that Túrin had ever told him about his forced sojourn in the Harad. There were still things his friend had, quite uncharacteristically, never mentioned, Faramir knew.

“So I did,” admitted the other. “And he must have hated me in these first years, for I was not a kind master. And he was not an easy man to keep, always trying to escape, or work mischief. But I daresay we got used to one another, in the end. Perhaps you know that he saved my life. Rescued me from an attacking lion.” He chuckled softly as if this amused him. “And this was not the only time he saved me. Therefore, I still consider myself in his debt. You know that we desert-folk take matters of honour very seriously, unlike some soft coast-maggots I could name.”

“You want me to believe that you have been looking out for me to repay your debt, because you lack the opportunity to do so to the man who earned your gratitude?” Faramir gave a short laugh. “Forgive me, but this sounds ridiculous. What is your true purpose, Al-Asad? Why are you here, for example? Marek must have had reason to invite you. You do not talk about him very favourably, but this could be pretence. Many do not like him, indeed despise him, and yet are ready to join him, for profit, or hatred of the tarks, or other, more personal reasons. So, what are yours?”

Al-Asad watched him with a faint smile. “I was told to be careful around you, because of your quick wit and sharp tongue. You are right, of course. Even though I do indeed feel indebted to Túrin, my purpose both for following Marek’s invitation and for insisting on a meeting with you, his greatest enemy, lies elsewhere. If you must know, once Marek and I were friends. A long story again. It suffices to say that during the War, we fell out with each other. Afterwards, when we had dealings they were purely confined to matters of business. I was actually surprised by his invitation. It looks like he is trying to mobilise whatever allies he can reach. Against you, and against your people. Now, I am not friendly with you Northerners, I admit this freely. Too much has passed between us, during the War and later. But I am not one to close my eyes in the face of new developments. Also, I value peace, and all the commodities it brings. The South paid a high price for it. You won, and let us know you did. But still, it is better than war and strife, and things have been improving constantly. But Marek does not seem to have understood this yet, and wants us to return to the old ways. So how could I support him, if what he has planned goes against my own desire?”

Before Faramir could interrupt to demand a definition of this desire, Al-Asad went on, “There is another thing. I could applaud his daring venture of capturing your wife, if it had not been so short-sighted. To tease the tarks now and again – why not? They tease us, too. But like this … nay! This is no teasing, this is an open invitation for hard and bitter retaliation. This is madness. To be honest, I do not know what he intends with her. Her abduction was sure to cause trouble, and it seems to me that he did not truly anticipate how bad this trouble is going to be. Once your fleet arrives, I mean. And once you have found a way to deal with him personally.”

“So, you wish to join the winning side?” asked Faramir.

“Who would want to be on the other?”

“What convinces you that we are going to win?”

The Haradan shrugged. “I know Marek. I know his resources. I know most of his potential allies. I have heard a great deal about your King, and about your wife’s brother. And even more about you. Marek has been in many a tight place, but, taking all this knowledge into consideration, I doubt he is going to wriggle out of this one. He cannot run nearly as fast and far as he would need to.”

“You seem very convinced. But we have still not come closer to your true purpose. Why accost me here, where it is dangerous for both of us? Just to tell me you are on my side? Why should I believe or even trust you? You, a stranger, who openly admits he does not like my people and moreover only values his own profit. Why should I appreciate your support? Al-Asad, what is it you want of me? A plain answer, please!”

The desert-lord held his gaze, then gave a brief nod. “As you wish. I want to strike a bargain. You are right, I am here for profit. I have decided that Marek cannot provide it, not in the long run. You can. Profit lies in peace. Profit lies in trade, with North, South and East. Profit lies in good connections. Now, does it suffice to say that I have made a name, a good name, with the breeding of horses?”

Now it was Faramir’s turn to smile faintly. This man was a shrewd businessman indeed. He still did not trust him, but he appreciated his outspokenness. Moreover, the connection with Túrin stood in the man’s favour. His friend had mentioned the other. The story with the lion he had recounted several times. Faramir surmised that if not friendship, then at least a mutual respect had developed between Túrin and Al-Asad. The Haradan was a man to be respected, much unlike Al-Jahmîr. If he was not a prime actor, pretending to value honour and straightforwardness in matters of business. Still, Faramir knew he could rely on his perception in this regard. Al-Asad had given no indication of not speaking his mind, or of deceit, however hidden.

“Aye, it does suffice,” he replied. “Given my connection to Rohan, your purpose becomes much clearer. So, you want me to put in a good word for you with my wife’s kin, in order to provide you with some of their best steeds? Mearas, even, perhaps? They would improve any blood-line. But this is easier said than done. Maybe you have heard how protective the Rohirrim are of their horses. I doubt that even my influence through my wife would be enough to persuade them to part from even one.”

“Would aid in the rescue of your wife play in my favour?” asked Al-Asad quietly.

Faramir gazed at him long and gravely. The man knew how to bargain. Still, he had expected an offer of the kind, as this was the promise most likely to sway him.

“If the rescue succeeded, surely,” he answered slowly. “The Rohirrim are a generous folk, and for the safe return of their King’s sister, there will certainly be a great reward. But since I am none of them, you understand I cannot make any promises on their behalf – especially none that concern their precious horses.”

“Of course not. But you are not a man to forget a favour, especially if it concerns retrieving that which is most precious to you, and damaging the man you most hate?”

“I should be deeply grateful for all the help I receive,” said Faramir, upon which Al-Asad smiled broadly. “And yes, I have a good memory.”

“This is all I wished to hear. And it suffices for now. We should return to the pavilion. By different routes, preferably.” He rose, and bowing slightly to Faramir, said, “I wish you a pleasant evening, and a safe exit from this most impressive fortress. You will hear from me. My people shall know where to find you. Rest assured that I am not going to betray your confidence and identity. But if you take my counsel, do not linger much longer. Marek’s guards have an eye on you and your companions, and although my people managed to distract them for the purpose of our little conversation, I should not risk any entanglements with Aurens and his men. Farewell.”

With that, he turned and quickly left, his wide garments flowing. Husam followed like his shadow. Stepping over to Faramir, Mezlâr whistled softly through his teeth. “So this is Al-Asad,” he muttered. “Now I recall where I have heard the name before. The grand-sire of your stallion was one of his most famous steeds. Lord Khorazîr’s brother-in-law had dealings with him, and I remember hearing that he had to pay a lot of gold for acquiring breeding-rights for his mares. He knows how to look after his own.”

“So you think what he told me was genuine?” inquired Faramir.

“Yes, I do. But I also think that one must tread carefully around him. He did not get where he is now by selflessness and restraint. Still, I believe his claim to oppose Al-Jahmîr. Rumour goes the Snake tried to cheat him over the price of a couple of horses, among other things. I doubt Al-Asad is someone to forget slights of this kind.”

“Thank you for your assessment, Mezlâr. We should return now, too, to see how Lôkhî is faring. As much as I yearn to stay, unless a safe opportunity arises to briefly meet with Éowyn, I fear we shall have to depart indeed.” He gazed to where the many lights of the pavilion could partly be descried through the trees and bushes, and sighed.

Mezlâr gave him a sympathetic glance. “Mind your voice again now,” he reminded the Dúnadan as they set out. “And your walk.”

Faramir sighed again. “Next time, Mezlâr, you wear the dress, alright?”

The guard shook his head. “Next time, it is the Snake’s turn.”

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PostPosted: Mon 10 Aug , 2009 2:33 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Éowyn had lost all interest in the cake drizzled with a peppermint syrup by the time the Snake returned to the high table. She studied him anxiously, and though he seemed distracted, he showed no sign of the smug delight he surely would have displayed at having captured his enemy again. She breathed a little easier. Perhaps her imagination was simply playing tricks with her tonight. He meandered through the tables, pausing to speak with guests, but from time to time he would glance toward the far side of the castle grounds, the area hidden in shadow away from the revelry. But all too soon he had again returned to the high table and taken his seat. She chose not to protest when he reached for her hand, but the disdain on her face made it clear she was not an entirely willing participant in the gesture.

“Where is Khazen?” al-Jahmîr asked his other son.

Adûnakhôr turned from where he was quietly talking with his wife. “He disappeared awhile ago.”

With a frown, al-Jahmîr left the table, and Éowyn turned her attention back to the guests. A trio of corsairs were roaring with tipsy laughter, slapping one of their fellows on the back in appreciation of whatever joke or tale he had recounted. Elsewhere the crowd was quieting, engaged in conversation or sipping wine while enjoying a fine pastry or carved fruit. Then her gaze fell on those standing just outside the pavilion, half in the shadows, and she stiffened. What was he thinking, dressing up in that ridiculous outfit and making himself the center of attention in the knife show? Well, clearly he was not, she decided, for certainly he would have seen the absurdity of it all. Perhaps his injuries or the hot southern sun had addled his brains. But obviously the Snake had not recognized him, she reasoned, and at that thought she let herself sink back into her chair, still keeping her gaze on her ill-thinking husband.

She did not notice the Snake had taken his seat again until she saw Aurens cross in front of her and lean in to speak to his master. “It is not my place, sir, but I must protest,” he said in a low, earnest voice. Al-Jahmîr arched an eyebrow but let his commander continue. “There must be a better way to show your displeasure. He is your son,” he stressed, “your firstborn.”

“Your concern is noted, but I have made my decision,” al-Jahmîr answered, “and I expect you to abide by it.” The two stared at each other for a moment before Aurens bowed stiffly and with an “Aye, sir,” hurried away.

No sooner had the commander left than Adûnakhôr, his expression anxious and with more than a trace of what Éowyn thought was fear, spoke. “What are you going to do to my brother?”

Al-Jahmîr studied his second son briefly, then wiped some crumbs from his hands with a napkin. “You will see soon enough.” He gestured to a servant, who scurried over to the musicians. Soon their song swelled to a flourish and then finished. Al-Jahmîr stood as their took their bows and applauded them. The rest of the crowd followed his cue, then turned their attention to their host. Éowyn glanced at Adûnakhôr, who was tapping the fingers of one hand on the edge of the table while chewing the nail of the thumb on the other. He looked ready to bolt, and now his wife noticed his distress, placing her hand on his arm and asking a question with her look. He shook his head.

As the clapping finished, al-Jahmîr surveyed the crowd, nodding to certain persons with a warm smile, chuckling on occasion when he met the gaze of another. Then the pavilion was silent except for the crackling of the torches and the ever-present crashing of the waves on the rocks far below them. Even the chairs withheld their creaking for now. At last, he began.

“Friends, businessmen, strangers, honored guests all. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to my home, and I am at once honored and ever humbled that you chose to accept my invitation.” Though he did not seem to be making an effort to speak loudly, his voiced carried across the pavilion, and even those seated in the back nodded. “May the stars shine with favor upon our meeting, and may the winds of the sea carry you safely home when we have finished.” He raised his goblet. “To your health and honor.” He had hardly drank and set the goblet back on the table before the first guest rose and offered a toast to their host. This continued for several rounds, with many thanking al-Jahmîr for his graciousness, complimenting him on his magnificent garden and splendid entertainment, and others seeming to apologize for their doubts about his abilities to host such a grand affair.

When the last guest who felt he needed to return his host's welcome at this time – a rather portly fellow with a red sauce or wine stain on his white scarf – had sat down, al-Jahmîr spread his arms and bowed slightly.

“Again, I thank you. It is fitting that we meet on this fair night at the shores of the sea, the sea that has given us and our forefathers life for centuries. The sea has cared for us, let us fish from her clear waters, let us sail her mighty waves – I do not say tame, for who could ever tame such a wild mistress? She is her own lord – for generations. She had brought us all great fortune, and at times she has seen fit to take it away again. Out of her horizon came the first of our forefathers who set foot upon the shores of the great haven in Umbar and settled there and built a great and mighty city, a city to be loved by its allies and feared by its enemies.” He continued telling of Umbar's history, painting pictures with his words of its rise to splendor. He left the table and paced across the space in front of it when he told of the Kings of the Sea, his hands rising to show the heights of their great towers. He told how they had taken riches of the city back to their lands in the west, but how they had also imparted so much wisdom and knowledge upon those who remained, how the city thrived because of them. Heads nodded in time to his almost rhythmic speech as he progressed through the drowning, to the aftermath of how some of the traitors and spies of the Valar had tried to infiltrate the city and were driven away.

The history continued, now turning to Umbar's struggles. The city and region would be attacked by foreign armies or navies, and the brave and resourceful people would fight back and turn away the aggressors. Al-Jahmîr cited several wars – the first few were from general troublemakers, but as his story went on, the attacks came from farther and farther north. Many of the events Éowyn found she was not familiar with, and others had a decidedly Umbarian point of view.

“Always we have sought to retain our own rule, our own way of life,” the Snake said. “Is that not what all men want? The freedom to choose how to live their lives?” There were nods and several calls of agreement. “But within my lifetime, indeed within the lifetime of my sons, there have been those who have come to our shores and borders seeking to make us submit to their will. They have destroyed our fleets, taken up residence in our fair city. They impose their taxes and send the revenue northward to fill their king's coffers. They press our sons into their governor's service and leer at our daughters.

“In the lifetime of my grandfather and his grandfather before him, Umbar was her own sovereign ruler. For centuries she ruled these lands, but now the grandchildren of traitors and treacherous Elf-friends are trying to finish what their fathers could not: making our fair land submit to their king, who lives far away in the cold, dark north and cares naught for our sun-warmed shores. How can we as free men stand for this?

“I have seen too many men blinded by the shine of their gold. Yes, trade with the north has made many rich, myself included, but there is a difference between simple trade and buying into their promises of friendship and peace through commerce. Friendship? I have been to their lands, and I have seen how our people are scorned, spat upon. They love us for our pearls, silks and spices, but how long will that love last if our pearl beds are exhausted, our silkworms no longer spin threads, our spices lose their flavor? Our use would be gone, as would their so-called friendship.

“As for peace,” he snorted, “what peace? Twice has their king made war upon us – the first time as a coward who could not fight us under his true name, and since he has already lied to us once, how could we ever trust him to be honest with us in governance? – and even now his lords meddle in our affairs, stirring up trouble and intrigues to benefit themselves and make us look like rabble-rousing peasants.

“Is this how we are to live, treated as pawns on a chessboard? Small and expendable pieces far away from the larger game? Even if we reached the other side of board, by their rules we could not exchange ourselves for anything greater.

“Their very laws reveal their belief that we cannot be trusted. Our shipping yards once turned out daily vessels that were our pride and glory. Now their production is only a shadow of what they were, thanks to regulations set down by the governor and the crown. Why? They know our great power is when we are on the sea, and they fear that. But those regulations limit not only ships that could be useful in war, but also the smaller craft that we need for fishing and other tasks. They do not trust us to build so much as a pearling raft without approving the design.

“And so the frustration with such disrespect has built, and no wonder from time to time we lash out. They do not treat us as free subjects, but vassals. How much longer shall we burden under this yoke?” He strode back to the head table and sipped from his goblet. He glanced at Éowyn and smirked before turning back to the others. She dug her fingers into the folds of her dress. He told a fine tale, she thought, and he worked wonders at twisting the truth. How many of those laws and sanctions against the Umbarians come because they had violated previous decrees? How many times had they shown they could not be trusted? Too many of the nobles and merchants had voiced their agreement at various points in his speech, though there were some who for now were content to merely listen thoughtfully. A few even looked as though they had lost interest entirely.

At one of the tables in the first row, a small, stooped old man stood (with the help of a much younger hand), his short beard a snowy white. “Your skill with words has not lessoned, Marek son of Mahîd,” he said, his voice high and soft but still strong. “As you spoke I became a boy again and saw my father's tall ships on the glittering water, their red sails bright in the morning sun. But those ships and my great father, may he sleep in peace, are both gone, and the world is much changed. Now I am an old man, and the dampness of the docks makes my bones ache. I am one hundred and seven years old, and I have seen too much of war. I watched many of my sons and grandsons march to battle, and I have not seen them again, though each day I look for their banners on the horizon.” He raised a wrinkled hand to wipe his eyes. “I have wished for many years to see peace before I die, and I fear even with my good health I will not live long enough for that. But after looking back over my many years, it seems to me that we cannot clamor for peace while being aggressors ourselves.”

Now he straighted himself as best he could and looked directly at al-Jahmîr “I do not fear you, Marek son of young Mahîd, and I certainly do not fear death, so I will ask what many of your honored guests wish to know but are too afraid to ask: Why do you insist on irritating the tarks with your schemes and cry foul when they impose their laws and pursue you into the hills? My great-great-granddaughter has not yet seen three full summers, and already she knows the fattest and gentlest of house cats will bite when annoyed. You taunt a mighty lion and still have not learned that lesson. I think many of your problems with the tarks come from your own rashness. Now you have turned aggressor and stolen their great lady. Why? I say now for all to hear: I will not support Marek al-Jahmîr in his latest scheme, nor will I offer any services to the northern kingdom. Perhaps if you had attacked their harbors or launched and assault on their outposts I might have lent my meager assistance. Instead you have kidnapped a woman, a wife and mother, and I do not wish to be part of a war fought over a woman. I had enough of lovers' skirmishes when I was in my twenties.” Open chuckles and snorts were heard as the speaker slowly sat down in his cushioned chair, and even al-Jahmîr wore a slight smile, though who knew what it meant.

The Snake stepped forward and bowed to his guest. “Your mind and tongue are sharp even at your great age, Bezalil. I, too, hope you see peace before you begin your long sleep and again sail with your father on his tall ships.” The host did not appear to be offended by his guest's blunt speech, Éowyn thought, but then he was good at hiding his true thoughts. “If the tarks did not insist on meddling in our affairs, I would not insist on disrupting theirs in return. Officially they deny it, of course, but who among us gathered would deny that the lords very much have their hands in events that happen far from their fiefs? The steward seeks to extend his influence in Umbar and the southern lands, and what he does surely reflects the kingdom's policy, official or otherwise. He has given refuge to my enemies and encouraged and equipped them in their fights against me. The friend of my foes is my foe as well.

“One of his projects is to extend the road south from his realm. Obviously such a road would have to be guarded, and so his men move further south. He is overconfident to the point of arrogance, thinking that he can go unquestioned because he is the king's pet.” He glanced at Éowyn, who had clenched her jaw to keep from opposing him. If he was trying to goad her into losing her reserve, he was doing a splendid job, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction. “So I have made it my personal project to show him that he is not invincible. I have poisoned him to the point of death and brought him back from the abyss so he could remember what helplessness feels like. I have taken his wife to show him just how truly weak he is, for I have studied him long enough to know that he is lost without her at his side. He thinks he is the savior of the South, but he is just another foreign power seeking to exploit us for his personal and political gain. He is a skillful speaker, I will grant him that, but many have been too blinded by this skill to see the lies in his honeyed words. I believe there are some here who have seen what I have seen.”

And there were. One by one they stood and aired their grievances, from the mundane fault of overcharging at tolls to the spectacular charge that Ithilien rangers did not come to the aid of a caravan being attacked by bandits and instead joined in the looting and slaying. Éowyn recalled a different account of that incident, where rangers had been killed by bandits and their uniforms stolen. Her jaw ached, and her fingernails carved marks into her palms as the accusations continued. Finally al-Jahmîr waved for the rest to be seated, saying, “Doubters, do you see? I am not the only one with reasonable complaint against this man. His crimes are many and, look, the most damning evidence of all,” he said, pointing to Éowyn, “even his own wife does not speak in his defense.”

Nor could she, even if she tried. She was seething, and what eloquence she had disappeared in her anger. She tried to ignore the murmurs coming from the guests as they considered her silence.

“Some of you may ask why don't I register my complaints through the proper channels, such as the governor in the city. I have, and the only thing that came of it was I and my family was watched more closely than ever. After hearing all of this, is anyone surprised? This Faramir is above the law, both here and in the kingdom. If the king's governor is willing to turn a blind eye to one lord's misdeeds here, how many more will also slip by?

“It is time for Umbar to stand up to this injustice and take back her full sovereignty. We must put an end to this northern aggression. Now is the time for Umbarians to come to the aid of their countrymen.” He stepped back and let his guests talk among themselves. The crowd seemed evenly split among those who whole-heartedly agreed with him, those who seemed to agree with the general idea but needed more persuading, and those who were not convinced at all.

As the conversations continued, a breathless messenger boy clad in the Snake's livery – though it was wrinkled and stained from travel – rushed into the pavilion and handed an envelope to his master. He was not the only lad to have made a hurried journey. More than a dozen errand riders, clad in everything from the full regalia of their masters to their own clothes and a simple armband bearing an insignia, streamed into the pavilion, each searching for a certain table. Éowyn watched al-Jahmîr read the letter and then stare at it without expression. Others in the pavilion were not so stoic. They swore loudly, leaping to their feet and going to others who had received tidings. From what Éowyn remembered of introductions earlier, they appeared mostly to be guests from the city proper. She was started to see a messenger come toward her, but he was giving a sealed envelope to Adûnakhôr. His face turned ashen as he read the message, then to her surprise, he passed it to her. Before she could unfold the paper, someone in the crowd shouted, “The whole bloody fleet's in Umbar and King bloody Elessar's with them.”

What remaining calm there was evaporated. The drunk corsairs staggered to their feet and roared for revenge. Some of the city nobles navigated their way through the tables and straight to al-Jahmîr, who quickly engaged them in heated debate. Among the din, the primary question seemed to be whether this was open war already or just a show of force. Éowyn tried to collect her thoughts. Did she dare hope that this was why Faramir was here tonight, to spirit her away amid all the confusion? She searched the place where she had last seen him standing, and to her dismay he was still there, though a bit farther back in the shadows. The Snake's soldiers had positioned themselves in clear sight, spears in hand, should anyone in the crowd turn violent. Maybe not tonight then, she thought, but if the fleet had arrived then it could not be much longer. But how she wished this would be her last night here.

Al-Jahmîr sent the nobles back to their seats and tried to restore some order. It took a soldier clashing his spear against his shield to first get anyone's attention, and then in time the agitated guests grew if not quiet then at least less loud. “Yes, this is somewhat a change in plans,” he stated, “but only in the sense that things are sped up and we must begin cooperation tonight.”

“What security will you give us that you will follow through?” came a voice. “None of us want to be drawn into this only to have it fall apart around us and you flee into hiding. You have a less than stellar record on this matter.”

The Snake glowered. “Security? Let me show you what I mean to do with the tarks and anyone who forsakes Umbar to join them.” He spoke to the nearby soldier, who hurried out of the pavilion. Again he read the now-crinkled paper in his hand while he waited. The guests resumed their discussions, the volume increasing as the minutes passed, but they quickly quieted when Aurens and a small group of soldiers appeared, escorting a young man in chains.

The prisoner barely reached the commander's shoulder. Perhaps he once had a full form, but now he was quite scrawny. His hair and beard were both dark, dirty and matted. He moved slowly, as though each step took great effort, but he carried himself as though he belonged in this pavilion as much as any of the others invited. Éowyn heard Adûnakhôr draw a sharp breath and saw him jump to his feet and rush to his father, arriving at the same time as the escort. He drew his father aside and offered a short but heated argument in a low voice.

Éowyn was sure she was not the only one straining to hear, but both men were skilled at making sure their words did not reach unintended ears. With a stern glare, the Snake sent him away as one of the soldiers threw down a headsman's block. The second son's long strides swiftly carried him back to his seat. As he sat he told his wife to check on their daughter.

“Adûn, what's happening?” Inzilbêth asked, frightened. “Why is Min--”

“Woman, go!” he ordered, instructing a nearby guard to escort her. He did not answer her protests or questions as she was taken away, his full attention on the scene in front of him. His face had turned ashen, and the tablecloth's hem bounced in time with his knee.

“Your bother,” Éowyn murmured. He nodded, pain filling his expression. She pitied him suddenly, for his effort to dissuade his father from his intentions clearly had not worked.

Al-Jahmîr took a step forward and took a breath to speak, but his eldest son beat him to the first word.

“Good evening, Father. I see in these trying times you still find enough to spare for lavish entertaining.”

The Snake whirled to face him, the jewelry he wore tinkling merrily as he spun. “You are my firstborn,” he hissed, “and even now you still disrespect me.” He turned back to the guests. “This withered figure is my son, my firstborn son,” he stated, his voice rising. “I taught him to walk, to speak, to think. I gave him all the joys in life and prepared him to be heir to a long-lasting house of Umbar. But how does he show his gratitude? He betrayed his father, his family, by crumbling at the first hint of pressure from the tarks. No, I was mistaken.” He paused. “This is not my son. My sons do not turn traitor.”

He gave the order and a masked executioner stepped forward. Minastir calmly knelt and awaited his fate, but he turned to the headsman and said, “Thank you, good sir. I am grateful that I will not live to see my father humiliated and my family brought to ruin.”

Éowyn looked at Adûnakhôr, and she was keenly aware that she was not the only one watching the second son's reaction as the blade was raised and brought down. He did not flinch, but she knew the others also had not seen him gripping the arm of his chair so hard it had splintered. As the remains were taken away, al-Jahmîr gave Adûnakhôr a long and pointed look, and the young man held his gaze.

Éowyn felt ill. Death was not new to her, but this had been different. This was something far more personal and sinister than the mere end of life. He just executed his own son. The thought chilled her, and she shivered despite the warm evening air.

The Snake spoke. “Those of you willing to fight for a free and sovereign Umbar, stay with me. To the rest of you, good night.” He began walking back to the table, the murmur of his guests following him. He took a drink and said nothing when he finished, simply watching his second son. This time Adûnakhôr held the gaze only a few seconds before dropping his eyes and shaking his head. Someone hailed the Snake, and once the Snake was lost in the crowd of guests, his son stood and offered Éowyn his arm, pleading with his eyes.

Without a word they negotiated the maze of hedges and flower bushes back into the castle. Éowyn knew she had no words to comfort him. He was struggling to maintain his composure as it was, and his cheeks were wet by the time they reached the terrace outside his quarters. A figure rushed to meet them, and Éowyn stood aside. Adûnakhôr embraced his wife tightly, burying his face in the curve of her neck. Inzilbêth whispered to him, and Éowyn squeezed her shoulder as she passed. She had not reached the doorway when Adûnakhôr's low moan began and grew into a distraught wail. Inside, she saw one of the healers mixing herbs and powders into a cup, shaking her head as she worked. “To calm him, poor boy,” she whispered, glancing at the couple standing on the terrace. “Do you need something as well?” Éowyn shook her head and continued to her room as the healer went outside.

As she sat on the bed, the full weight of what she had just seen sank in, and the twinge of horror grew into its full form. He just killed his own son, she thought. What's to keep him from killing me?

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“You’ve returned just in time for the interesting part,” whispered Lôkhî to Faramir and Mezlâr as they joined him in the shadows outside the pavilion. “Marek spent a long time praising Umbar’s past. Good speech, but a little long, and with a rather … well … oblique approach to truth. But listen to this. Now he seems to have reached his favourite subject.”

And listen they did. Faramir watched Éowyn closely as the Snake proclaimed one insult of his person after another. She seemed to be seething with wrath, restraining herself with an effort. From the corner of his eye, he saw Mezlâr twitch at his side as well, apparently about to leap up in his defence. Leaning to him, “Leave it,” he whispered, slightly surprised by his own coolness. “’Tis too dangerous. Those who know me know the truth. And the rest shall learn it eventually. Moreover, I find this almost amusing. One must commend him for his inventiveness and vivid imagination. I never knew I was that evil.”

Mezlâr gave him an irritated glance. “But –”

Faramir shook his head. “Just ignore it. Look round and see how the guests react, rather. Not all seem convinced, which is important.”

When Al-Jahmîr addressed Éowyn, however, slighting her publicly as well, his own anger was stirred. It was one thing to insult him. He had expected some humiliating remarks in this grand speech as soon as the Snake had mentioned his plans for announcing some things this evening. But to compromise Éowyn like this … A quick glance at Lôkhî showed the small man smiling grimly. “If you allow me to, I’m going to send him a little token of yours when we’re on our way out. Just to show him who he spoke to in that tent.”

“As long as it does not endanger Éowyn, you are most welcome to,” replied Faramir, sharing the other’s vengeful mood.

The tidings about the fleet’s arrival and the general uproar this created filled him with silent pleasure. The news had surprised the Snake as well, and to a degree even unsettled him, despite him having managed to conceal his concern. He had even been able to use the tidings for his profit, or so it seemed, for many of the doubters, especially those hailing from Umbar proper, now feared that Gondor was indeed coming as a conquering force. Once they had had time to listen to more information, and had indeed seen the fleet, Faramir was convinced many would begin to doubt again that Marek Al-Jahmîr was the right man to lead them in these troubled times.

He had certainly displayed his utter ruthlessness clearly for those who had not previously been convinced of it. The execution of his firstborn had shocked Faramir as much as most of the others, even though he had thought he knew what the Snake was capable of. To a certain degree, it had been comforting to behold the pride and calm dignity of the young man who must have anticipated his dark fate for some time. And his cheek, for with his comments he had clearly robbed his father of a complete triumph.

Also, it had been most interesting to witness Adûnakhôr’s reaction. The young man had been too far away for Faramir to see his expression in detail, but he had clearly been dealt a heavy blow, whatever his recent relationship to his brother. As someone who had lost his elder brother himself, Faramir pitied him deeply. And he also wondered if Al-Jahmîr had not made yet another mistake, and perhaps even lost himself one of his most important allies.

All these thoughts were banished from his minds when he saw Adûnakhôr reach for Éowyn’s arm and the two left the pavilion, while Al-Jahmîr was surrounded by a small crowd of excited guests. Both looked greatly shaken, the young man close to tears. And Éowyn? Clearly she must be unsettled, and very frightened. What security had she that the Snake would not deal with her likewise, if she displeased him in any way?

Her expression was enough for Faramir to make up his mind. Danger or no. “I need to talk to her,” he told his companions.

“How?” demanded Lôkhî, frowning deeply. “Look at all those guards. You won’t even get in the house, and we don’t know where exactly she is accommodated. We should be off now. Use the commotion and slip away. It’s the only reasonable thing to do, and you know it.”

“She lives in the Snake’s son’s quarters,” a voice said from behind, speaking very quietly. Faramir did not turn, for he recognised it as Khorazîr’s. “You remember the map, and the large courtyard with the fountain and the orange-trees?” Faramir nodded, feeling a hand reach for his and press a folded piece of cloth into it. Without looking at it, he understood it to contain directions to Éowyn’s quarters. “There are guards stationed at every entrance,” continued Khorazîr, so softly that his voice could barely be heard over the din from the tent, “so you will need a good story to get past them. Try the west entrance from the courtyard. Some of the guards there belong to Adûnakhôr’s household and not his father’s. Ere you set out, pass by your tent. Someone left a parcel for you – it may help you on the way out, I was told to tell you. Good luck.”

“You approve of his going?” asked Lôkhî incredulously.

“None of us could possibly dissuade him,” came the soft reply, then, “Would the masters and the lady care for another drink?” he asked aloud. “We have a most excellent wine from vineyards of Rahat. Or more sweets?”

Lôkhî turned and glared at him, and Khorazîr hastened off.

“You do not have to stick around,” said Faramir, “neither of you. I know ‘tis dangerous. I will be careful, and not press matters. If they insist on keeping me out, I shall return, and we leave. I promise.”

“Forget it,” said Lôkhî. “We stay as long as you, if only to distract the footpads. Come on, you must be on your way.”

“But let us have a look at the parcel, first,” threw in Mezlâr.

+

The lamp in their tent had been extinguished. In the dim illumination coming through the cloth from outside, Faramir saw a bundle of cloth. When he had carefully unwrapped the outer layer, he saw that it contained three large hooded burnouses of the kind worn by the desert tribes. Their colour was hard to define in the semi-darkness, but he surmised them to be of a light blue. He smiled faintly. “A gift from our new friend, it seems. Here, each of you take one and hide them in or under your clothes. Should things go awry and our current disguise not work anymore, change into them. You then belong to the household of Fuad Al-Asad.”

Lôkhî gave him a questioning glance. “Mezlâr will explain,” Faramir told him quickly while stowing he burnous in his belt underneath the voluminous skirts. “We will meet at the sand sculpture. ‘tis close to most of the escape routes we looked at. Should I not have returned in an hour, you wait no longer, understood, but get out!”

Both nodded, their expressions grave and their gazes upon him doubtful. Nevertheless, they wished him good luck, and held open the tent-flaps for him to leave.

Khorazîr’s description of the route was clear and concise. Moreover, Faramir had used every moment they had not been forced to perform to learn as much of the interior of the castle as possible, and compare it with his mental image of the maps and floor-plans he had studied. The problem was not to find the quarters he was looking for, the problem was to get past the many guards.

After having made sure he was not being pursued on his way through the gardens, he feverishly considered how to convince them he had to be allowed inside. It was illusory to believe he would manage to slip past them unnoticed. He knew he could not ask to visit Éowyn. It would be too suspicious. But there might be another way.

+

Contrary to his expectations, he reached the courtyard without even getting accosted once. There was a steady flow of servants, errand-boys, pages and personal guards of a number of guests passing through it and along its colonnades. Consequently, the Snake’s household guards had long ceased to question each and every one of them. Faramir joined a group of chattering, elderly servants and slipped past the watch, who at that moment seemed more interested in a group of scantily clad dancers on their way to some private quarters. One of his companions gave them a disapproving glance.

“Off to young Master Khazen, I warrant,” she muttered to the others. “That boy still hasn’t grown up.”

“And won’t, mark my words,” piped up a second.

“How should he, away down in Umbar? This is a vicious place for the young,” commented another. “And the old, for that matter.”

“Completely spoilt, if you ask me. And no wonder. Growing up without a mother.”

“Aye. If Lady Zoraîde had been around, things wouldn’t be like this with the three lads. Poor Master Minastir, he was such a nice boy when he was little. Only Master Adûn turned out alright.”

The others agreed and began to reminisce about the times when Al-Jahmîr’s wife had still been mistress at Ihimbra. Under different circumstances, Faramir would have deemed it important to learn more about the woman, but since the servants were heading towards the kitchens and no longer in his direction, he left the group as they passed near the entrance to that part of the castle the Snake’s middle son and his family were accommodated in. And Éowyn.

The ornate doors were open, but blocked by three guards, two of whom were engaged in conversation. When the third spotted Faramir, the other two interrupted their speech together and turned to face him. One wore the Snake’s livery, and although the others were also clad very similarly, he detected slight differences in the way they were armed and armoured. Apparently Khorazîr had been right in his estimate, and they belonged to Adûnakhôr’s guards.

“Halt,” the Ihimbra guard who appeared to be of superior rank to the others addressed him, stepping forward and descending the short flight of steps leading up to the doors. “Who are you, and what do you want here? These are private quarters where no strangers are permitted.”

Before Faramir could reply, one of the other guards stepped to the speaker and said in a low voice, which nevertheless Faramir heard, “It’s that fortune-teller I heard the lads talk about when they returned from their trip into town. With the blindfolded knife-thrower, you know. Some saw their show and were really impressed. And tonight Lord Al-Jahmîr himself has visited her.”

The guard studied Faramir closely. “Fortune-teller, eh? What do you want here at this hour?”

The Dúnadan gave a brief curtsey. “My apologies for coming so late. I received a note from Lady Inzilbêth to call on her, with directions to come to this place.” He produced Khorazîr’s piece of cloth which contained a sketched floor-plan with some written comments and handed it to the guard. “She consulted me earlier, but wishes to see me again, to read the stars concerning the future of her new-born baby. You understand that it is difficult to gaze into the stars during daylight. And to read the little girl’s fortunes, I need to see the child. I told her so, therefore she invited me.” He lowered his voice conspirationally. “Also, the Lady wishes for more private settings for speaking about these intimate matters. My tent was not set up at a very convenient place, so close to the great pavilion with its many people. Naturally, she could not bring her baby thither.”

The guard studied the note, before handing it back. Again he gave Faramir a long, thoughtful glance. The Dúnadan detected little doubt about his story in the other’s dark eyes. Apparently there was something else occupying the man, and he thought he knew what. “Perhaps you should check with the lady,” he suggested, despite this being the exact thing he wished to avoid.

The guard stirred out of his thoughts. “I shall, but you will accompany me. You two, mind your positions while I am gone. You will be relieved by my men once I’m back.” Turning again to Faramir, he beckoned to him to follow.

As they walked along the echoing corridor, past another couple of guards of Adûnakhôr’s household who, upon a sign from his companion let Faramir pass without a word, he felt the man’s gaze on him as he stepped beside him.

“You are a clever man,” he stated, conversationally.

The guard looked at him questioningly. Faramir smiled. “You could have let me wait outside while you went to talk with Lady Inzilbêth. Instead, you accompany me yourself, in order to have an opportunity to talk to me. For there is a matter in which you desire counsel.”

The other stopped, gazing at the fortune-teller in surprise. “How do you know?” he asked incredulously.

“I would not be very skilled in my profession if I did not, would I? Now, let me see …” He gazed at the young man intently for a moment. “It is a matter of the heart,” he then stated – a mere guess, but the flush colouring the other’s cheeks told him, to his relief, that he had been right.

The guard nodded, looking embarrassed. “I understand that this is not a matter you wished to discuss openly in front of the others,” Faramir went on as they continued to walk, talking gently, to put both the guardsman and himself at ease. His mind was working feverishly. Now, he had to concentrate on what to tell the man to distract him, and at the same time heed his surroundings, and devise a plan of what to tell Inzilbêth. And Éowyn, should he ever reach her. Even though he was pleased about how smoothly things had worked so far, he felt his anxiety grow with each step. The corridors and staircases they were passing along were not empty. There were guards and servants about. The more people saw him here, the more dangerous things became. He recalled that there was also another way to the quarters, through the gardens, and wondered why Khorazîr had chosen this route. Surely it was longer than the other. But perhaps the gardens were even better guarded at this time.

“You’re right,” the guard admitted. “It’s not something I’d talk about in front of them. It’s about that girl, you see.” He licked his lips nervously, the blush deepening. Suddenly he looked very young and boyish, the authority he had ordered the other guards about entirely gone.

“She does not know of your feelings for her,” ventured Faramir, considering this a most likely guess.

The other sighed. “No. And I can’t seem to reach her. She … she’s not exactly … accessible.”

Faramir nodded slowly while, from the corner of his eyes, noting a corridor branching off that he knew was a short-cut to the meeting-point he had agreed upon with Lôkhî and Mezlâr. “She is one of your lord’s consorts,” he stated.

The guardsman nodded unhappily, making Faramir actually pity him. “What can I do?” the young man asked, gazing at the fortune-teller hopefully.

Forget about her, thought Faramir. “Do you have reason to believe she might share your feelings?” he inquired.

The other shrugged. “I knew her before she was brought here, and we talked a few times. I was under the impression she liked me. She even said so, once. I first thought she was going to be trained as a maid-servant. But apparently, when the lord saw her … And we normal guards aren’t even allowed near the consorts.”

“But you are allowed to talk to their servants,” suggested Faramir. “Are there any among them you think you can trust. For it is dangerous to act against your lord’s orders.”

“I know. But the servants … I’m not sure.”

“Find out. Treat the servants kindly, and if you think you can make their life a little easier, do so. You will see, they will not forget a favour. And find out about your beloved’s habits, and what she does during a usual day. Find out when she is alone, for you must not let the other consorts learn about your feelings. Then when the opportunity arises, send her a message, and wait for her reply. Then you will see more clearly. I am afraid this is all I can counsel you.”

The other sighed again. “But you are a fortune-teller. You can gaze into the future. Tell me, is there any hope? For us, I mean?” He looked desperate and hopeful at the same time.

“Even for me the future is hard to read, for it is ever shifting, ever moving. Everything we do influences it. But I will tell you one thing: life at Ihimbra as you know it will change soon. Things have been set in motion that will alter it beyond recognition. And this means opportunities will arise for many things you may not even dream about just now. Therefore, keep your eyes and ears open, and should there come a time when you have to choose between the old and the new, choose wisely.”

The guard gave him a thoughtful glance. “I think I know what you mean. I heard about the fleet. You believe the tarks are going to attack, and that the lord may fall?”

“’Tis not my place to believe one thing or the other,” answered Faramir ominously. “And I cannot say any more. Only this: in your own interest, follow these developments closely. And always remember who at the moment keeps you from even speaking with your beloved.”

Fearing that he had overstepped the mark, Faramir fell silent, but the other was lost in thought. At length he nodded slightly. “I thank you,” he said plainly. “Oh, here we are.” He indicated a door which again was watched by two men of Adûnakhôr’s household. “Wait here.”

Stepping forward, he spoke to the men, then knocked. A servant opened, and he stepped inside. Without the distraction the conversation had provided, Faramir felt his anxiety increase. The curious glances of the two guards did not improve matters. Pretending to study the ornamented tiles on the walls and the intricately carved frames of the entrances, he noticed another door a little further down and across the corridor that was also watched by two men – men wearing the Snake’s livery. His heart beat faster. Now he understood why he had been sent by this route. From the gardens, he would have had to pass through Adûnakhôr’s and Inzilbêth’s quarters in order to reach this corridor.

The longer he waited, the more nervous he grew. What would keep Inzilbêth from denying that she had invited him? He doubted she would, if only out of curiosity since his appearance here must strike her as strange. Nevertheless, there was the possibility. And then? Suddenly, it seemed an entirely crazy idea to risk so much. And there was always the question if his visit would be appreciated at all.

The door was opened again as the guard returned, and with him, to Faramir’s surprise, Inzilbêth herself. She looked pale and worried, but also curious, even pleased when her eyes fell on him. Giving him a brief smile, she stepped to him and laid a hand on his arm.

“I’m glad you are here,” she said, speaking very quickly, betraying her troubled mind. “You must have known I was thinking about sending for you tonight. I wanted to do so tomorrow, as I said, but after what happened … There are things I need to ask you. Nobody wants to tell me what just befell. But I need to know. And I need to ask you things about Dala. And about what’s going to happen now, and … But I need to look after Adûn first. He’s so upset, I’ve never seen him like this before. So distraught and … he needs me. And Dala’s woken, and she’s upset, too. You understand, don’t you? Could you perhaps wait a little while I look after them? I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. You must be tired, too, after such a long and exciting day. The healer has given him something, he should be calmer soon and hopefully fall asleep. You will wait, won’t you?” She gazed at him imploringly. Apparently she truly needed to talk to somebody.

Faramir nodded, not managing to interrupt her because before he actually was able to say something, she went on, “I have an idea. You need not stand in the corridor. I doubt Lady Éowyn is asleep yet as she has not long returned from the feast, either. I wanted to talk to her, anyway, only I couldn’t leave as yet. I’ve told her so much about you. I’m sure she’d be glad about the company. She must be troubled, too.” She lowered her voice, leaning close to him. “And I think she has things to ask you. Let’s see if she agrees to receiving you,” she went on, louder again. “You can wait in her room, and I will join you there as soon as I have looked after my family. Would that be alright? You’d be doing me a great favour if you stayed until I’m back.”

Without waiting for his answer, turning to the guard who had accompanied Faramir she said, “Thank you for accompanying her. You may go now. If you meet the healer on your way out, would you tell her to make some more of the potion? I think we may need it. Thank you.”

As the guard left, she reached for Faramir’s hand, and set out towards the other guarded door. The two men straightened as she approached, gazing at the fortune-teller doubtfully. “You know the orders, my lady,” said one, but looking uncomfortable as he did so. Apparently he did not appreciate having to speak up against her. “No strangers.”

“This is no stranger,” she returned, fiercer, Faramir was certain, than she had intended. She was truly troubled, her worries increased by concern about her husband and lack of information. No wonder she wanted to talk to someone. “The lord himself has consulted this fortune-teller tonight, spending quite a long time in her tent. All alone, mind you, without even his guards. Would he have done so if she was not trustworthy? I can vouch for her, and if that is not enough for you, ask Lord Al-Jahmîr yourself – if you dare interrupt him at his feast, and so earn his displeasure. Moreover, I’m going to join them in a moment.”

Not waiting for a reply, she went forward to knock on the door while reluctantly, the guards stepped aside. “Éowyn,” she said, opening the door a little and sticking in her head, “please excuse the interruption. I know it’s late. But would you do me a favour and briefly accommodate a guest, until I can join you? Just for a short while, until I have looked after Adûn and Dala? I’m sorry to trouble you after this long day and all that’s happened, but would you? I need to talk to you, to you both. It’s important. I hope you don’t mind.”

Faramir drew a breath to remain calm, at least outwardly. So do I, he thought.

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Mon 31 Aug , 2009 1:15 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Éowyn was glad Miliani was between her and the door, shielding her expression from the other woman. She sat in her dressing gown at her vanity as the maid worked the the tangles out of her hair, and as soon as the girl was done she would send her away, for she wanted to be alone now. The long evening's events had left her weary and unnerved, and she had many thoughts that would likely keep her awake longer than she wished. What had happened to Faramir and his companions? She had seen them on the edge of the crowd toward the end of al-Jahmîr's speech, but then in the confusion afterward she had not noted what happened to them.

She turned to the doorway, ready to refuse, but Inzilbêth's pleading look made her hesitate. “Who is it?”

“She's the fortune teller. Remember I told you I visited her tent? Please, it's important.”

Éowyn stared at her, stunned. She looked away, not wanting her surprise to be misinterpreted, and nodded. “Yes, send her in,” she said, finding her throat suddenly constricted. Inzilbêth thanked her and promised to return as soon as she could. She heard the swish of silk as the fortune teller entered the room, followed by another promise from the Umbarian to join them soon. Then the door closed, and Éowyn finally allowed herself to look at the newcomer. She sought first her – his – eyes, and their grey earnestness met her own. With effort she kept her voice steady as she welcomed him and made polite apologies about her attire, then offered him a seat in one of the cushioned chairs nearby.

The outfit truly was ridiculous, though convincing, she had to admit. Had this been almost any other situation, she would have teased him mercilessly about it, but now it was far too dangerous a charade to mock. Her heart pounded as she tried to guess why he had dared to come into the castle. Would they try to free her tonight? It was almost too much to hope for. Perhaps he was bringing important news. She could see him reflected in the mirror, but the distance and the veil gave away no secrets as to what he was thinking.

“Miliani, when you have finished, bring us some peach tea,” she said as the girl resumed working on her hair with the brush and comb. “Your show with the knife thrower was quite impressive, mistress fortune teller,” she went on. “Did you find the rest of the evening to your liking?”

“Not in every respect, my lady,” Faramir replied courteously, still speaking in the desert accent. He found that having to concentrate on achieving it and making his voice sound higher than usual also helped to keep it steady. He had noticed how Éowyn had fought for composure upon his entry – so there was no doubt about her having recognised him –, though she had managed without either Inzilbêth or the young serving girl still busy with her hair noticing anything wrong. The girl, Miliani, had given him a curious glance, but quickly resumed her task. He fervently hoped she would be finished soon and depart to fetch the tea, to give him some time with Éowyn alone, before Inzilbêth returned.

He could only see part of his wife’s face as it was reflected in the mirror, and had to force himself not to stare at her. Instead, he cast another glance round her chamber. He had surveyed it keenly upon stepping into the room, despite the temptation of gazing at Éowyn only – too long had it been since last he had seen her so close. But he needed to learn about his surroundings, especially about possible routes of escape. What he saw was not entirely to his liking. No wonder Al-Jahmîr had consented to removing her to this abode. He had to be all the more careful, and try to leave by the way he had come, without inviting any suspicion.

“But certainly it has been a splendid feast,” he went on, as conversationally as he managed, “and there have been a number of interesting, and indeed thought-provoking encounters. Some expected, and some rather not so. Moreover, the evening seems to be improving yet. I thank you for receiving me at so untimely an hour. And I hope that my visit is not entirely unwelcome,” he added quietly, not caring if she noted his anxiety.

“It is rather surprising,” she said. “I was not expecting any visitors, especially one of your many talents.” She wondered how anyone had been fooled by his attempt to mask his voice, but maybe she knew him too well for that. “Perhaps you will be able to give me some insight to some questions I have. That is fine, Miliani,” she said as she ran her fingers through her hair. “The tea, please.” The girl curtsied and gave the fortune another curious look as she left.

Éowyn waited several breaths after the door had shut before going to sit across from Faramir. She wanted to pull the cloth from his face, to really see him, but she knew it was too risky. Miliani or Inzilbêth could return at any moment, and the castle was still very active, there could be other, unwelcome, visitors. Instead she grasped his gloved hands, finding some comfort in his strength.

“Am I leaving tonight?” she asked, both hoping for and dreading his answer.

Faramir cast down his eyes. He had dreaded this situation, having to shatter her hopes of escape tonight, and having to explain why this could not be managed. “I wish you were,” he replied softly, his voice sounding like his own again, but sad and, of a sudden, very tired. Raising his eyes to meet her gaze, and it pained him to see her disappointment. How could he leave her here? The chamber was comfortable and quite elaborately furnished, she was well looked after, seemed to suffer no lack. And yet, he knew who her captor was, and what that man was capable of. How could he condemn her to an extended stay with the Snake, when there was the slightest chance of rescuing her this very night?

“We did not plan for it,” he confessed, “not for tonight. The past days have been difficult and full of danger. We were closely pursued and lacked … well, virtually everything, but mostly information about you. We heard rumours you had been imprisoned, and injured, so we neither knew where to find you nor what your condition would be. Only today we learned these things, and only now our situation appears to be improving in terms of support and reinforcements. You heard that Elessar and the fleet have arrived in Umbar. With them come your brother and Imrahil. Mablung and the rangers are about in the woods. We are not free from peril, but it has lessened. In some respects we have already turned from the prey into the hunters. I know you do not approve of my appearance here, and I am sorry for adding to your worries. But I had to see you, and try and talk to you. And believe me, this is a safer place for me at the moment than anywhere outside the
castle, where every soldier of the Snake is looking for the Steward – and indeed hunting him, for I heard he has been spotted by Aurens’ men.”

Squeezing her hands encouragingly, he went on, “Still, planned or no, I would nothing rather than see you leave with me tonight. Can you think of any way of getting out of the castle without raising suspicion and endangering yourself and the baby? And what about these rumours of injury and imprisonment?” He gave her a concerned glance, noting the shadows under her eyes and the additional lines of worry. After a moment’s hesitation and a cautious glance towards the door he leaned forward and reached out to stroke back a strand of hair from her cheek, wishing he was not wearing gloves. “Are you well?” he inquired softly. “And the little one? How have you been faring?”

She leaned into his touch. “We are well, better now that I have been moved here,” she answered. “Adûnakhôr and Inzilbêth have been kind to me. He may be the Snake's son, but he does not contain as much vileness as his father, though I fear he could if he were pushed too far. Tonight he was deeply hurt by his brother's death, so his father may have lost influence with him.” Pausing, she shook her head as scenes from the evening flashed unbidden through her memory. She murmured, “I cannot imagine my son doing anything so terrible that I would want him dead.”

Again she fell silent, this time at a sound from the door as Miliani returned bearing a tea tray. The girl poured the tea, stealing glances at the fortune teller as she did so. As the steam, smelling sweetly of fruit, drifted over the rims of the cups, Éowyn asked if Inzilbêth was on her way.

“No, my lady,” she replied. “I passed one of her maids, and she said Lord Adûnakhôr is still weeping.”

Nodding, Éowyn thanked her and sent her out of the room. When the girl had gone, she continued. “The rumors you heard, they are true. I do not know whether the Snake thought I had a hand in our meeting in the orchard or he was merely furious that I had met you at all or that you had slipped by all his guards and traps, but, yes, he threw me in his cells.” She told him about her treatment, about Narejde's man being tortured and dying beside her, about the Snake finding the necklace Faramir had sent as a token to show he was alive, about his mocking of her. As she spoke, she watched a fell light growing in her husband's eyes, until finally, when she described al-Jahmîr's threat against their unborn child, it changed into a coldness that would have made her fear him.

A knock at the door cut her words short, and Inzilbêth again stuck her head in. “May I come in? If you're telling a fortune, then I don't want to interrupt.”

“No, come in,” Éowyn said, then immediately wished she had said they were in the middle of fortune telling, for that would have given her a few more moments to speak with Faramir. She glanced at him, but he had looked away, perhaps trying to remain calm after what she had told him. Inzilbêth sat and adjusted her squirming daughter in her arms. “How is your husband?” Éowyn asked.

The Umbarian woman shook her head. “He's sleeping, finally.” She herself looked much more tired than when Éowyn had seen her hardly much more than an hour ago. “I've never seen him like this. I heard what happened,” she went on, her eyes widening, “and I can't believe it. Now I'm afraid for him. Minastir was always the more vocal one about opposing his father, and even went as far as barring him from the castle for a time. But Adûn went along with him on some of his ideas, not all. But could he be in danger too ...” She bit her lip and looked down at her infant, stroking the babe's cheek with her finger. When she had composed herself, she raised her gaze to meet the fortune teller's and asked, her voice quivering, “What's going to happen to my family? Is my husband ... Does my daughter have a future?”

With great effort, Faramir forced himself to resume his acting, and moreover concentrate on the anxious woman in front of him. Éowyn’s account had deeply shaken him, and rekindled the anger and hatred he bore towards Al-Jahmîr with an intensity that frightened him. He had expected her to withhold the worst details of her predicament, to give him a less thorough account so as not to add to his worries. Therefore, he had been prepared to guess at the truth, or try and detect information she was not putting into words. But there had been no need. She had been very frank and open – too much so, he almost felt. On the one hand he was glad that she had not spared him anything. She had needed to talk, too, and voice her fears, for who else could she trust in this place? But on the other hand … The fact she had been suffering without him even knowing, and without him having been able to aid her in any way had left him stricken, in a mood fell and
dangerous.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he gazed at Inzilbêth and her little daughter who had ceased her squirming and sat quite still in her mother’s arms, looking tired but content. Would he ever be able to hold his fourth child like this? When Inzilbêth had addressed him, he had been tempted to give her a harsh, direct reply, one to alert her to the danger of her situation.

But he knew it would be unjust to do so and increase her obvious misery. She had to learn of her danger. She had not chosen to be stuck in this mess, and she had all reason to be afraid. He pitied her, and her baby, and even her husband, Snake’s son or no. His gaze softened as he looked at her, trying to find the right words to break the truth she already suspected in gentler words.

“Your family’s future is in danger,” he said quietly, “as you already know. There is no use denying this. Your husband’s peril is the greatest. He will have to choose soon which path to follow, and whichever he chooses, it is going to be beset with difficulties, and may result in his death. His father has again shown that he is utterly ruthless, and should he have reason to suspect Adûnakhôr of treason, I do not doubt that he will punish him. Still, he cannot spend his sons indefinitely, or else he will be left without an heir. Khazen does not strike me as someone suited for the rule of anything, and Marek knows this. He needs his second son. Also, he would be extremely shortsighted to kill his grandchild. Therefore your daughter’s danger, at the moment, is the least of your family’s. She might be taken from you, if you were suspected of treachery, but I do not believe you need to fear for her death.”

Watching the Umbarian woman closely, he detected relief, but at the same time deep worry. “As I am sure you know, one path to tread for your husband – and indeed yourself – would be to support Marek in his further designs. This way, you would reduce the danger of inviting his wrath and revenge. Reduce, but not be saved from it entirely. For even I cannot foresee what he may do should his designs go awry and his desperation grow. As they will, eventually.

“Inzilbêth, you have no use for soft words that twist the truth, therefore I shall speak plainly to you. You must have heard rumours of the King’s fleet arriving. You know that Lady Éowyn’s husband is working feverishly to free her. What do you believe will happen once their forces are all assembled, and ready to strike? Do you not think that after all the anguish and pain they have suffered, after all the taunts and injustice, their revenge will
be fell and terrible? And complete? They would not strike at women and children, but the breaking of a siege is a messy, violent matter, and often people are hurt in it that should have been spared. And those closely associated with the enemy, they would receive no quarters. Those who supported Marek Al-Jahmîr will be enmeshed in his downfall. So should your husband choose this path, there would be no saving him.”

Inzilbêth’s face had lost all colour as she sat, clutching her child to herself. Again Faramir felt pity stir in him, more strongly than the anger he had harboured before, some of which he had vented through his speech. He reached out to clasp her hand briefly, to comfort her, and also cast a brief glance at Éowyn who had been watching him intently.

“Still, there is still time to prevent such dark things befalling,” he went on, releasing the young woman’s hand and leaned back again. “Your husband is grieved and troubled, and will need time to think about all that has happened. I am sure he knows the choice before him. ‘Tis a hard one, a more difficult decision than he has yet had to make. He will need your counsel. And this should be to devise ways of securing himself against his father’s wrath, as this being something he may actually be able to protect himself against – himself, and his family. He must rally people to himself who are utterly devoted to him, and who would dare to oppose his father. Not openly, not yet. He must be cunning, and so, Inzilbêth, must you be. Pretend to play along with Marek’s demands, so as not to invite suspicion. But plan for all eventualities. Find a way to reach safety, to secretly leave the castle should there be need. Secure the allegiance of
guards and servants you can trust. And if you can, help your guest, as you have done in the past. For her situation is even worse than yours, and her life and that of her baby are in constant danger. Do not think that whatever good you do her will go unnoticed by those about to free her. And this, too, is a way of securing your family’s future.”

He fell silent, watching the young woman reflect on his words. She still looked shaken, but had begun to master herself. He surmised that much of what he had told her she had known already, but preferred to not contemplate upon over much. She frowned, finally raising her eyes which had rested on her daughter to his. He thought he saw something new there, some unspoken question, even suspicion. He had overstepped the mark and spoken as himself not the unbiased, neutral fortune-teller, albeit still using her voice and accent.

“You spoke with my father-in-law today, too,” Inzilbêth began slowly. “I know I shouldn’t ask, but I wonder what you told him.”

“I told him to return what he has unlawfully taken, and run, as the only way of perhaps saving himself. But I doubt he will heed my counsel. And anyway, it would not save him.”

“Why did you warn him? You seem opposed to him, too.”

Faramir cast a glance at Éowyn who looked tense. He wished to comfort her, hold her hand, or better, embrace her, but how could he do so with Inzilbêth present? An idea struck. The risk was great, too great, maybe. But he was tired of disguise, of speaking in riddles, or not being able to talk openly even to his wife. He would not be able to stay much longer, and the young mother did not look like she was about to return to her quarters soon. He considered the danger for her and Éowyn, and decided at least Inzilbêth could claim she never recognised him. After all, neither had the Snake. But if she knew, she might be able to aid his escape, as she had some authority with the guards – if she did not call for them in the first place. Giving her a calculating glance, he knew she would not do so. Already she seemed to have made her choice, but out of fear for her family and uncertainty about how to protect them she had not admitted it to herself. Well,
he would force her to do so now.

Fixing her gaze in his, he nodded. “I am opposed to him, Inzilbêth,” he said, in his normal voice, causing her to start, and drawing a gasp of surprise and shock from Éowyn, “more than you can imagine. And I dislike to deceive you further. My apologies for my curious attire, and the lack of a proper introduction. I wish we had met under more joyful circumstances.” With that, he reached up and unfastened the veil.

Inzilbêth stared at him, stunned, and almost looked about to run.

“Please, I beg you,” Éowyn whispered, now free to grip her husband's hand. The Umbarian woman's eyes remained wide, but after a moment she leaned back in her chair and seemed to relax a little. At last she rubbed her forehead with her free hand, as though still unable to truly believe what she saw in front of her.

Taking the opportunity, Éowyn leaned forward and kissed Faramir swiftly. As he stroked her hair, she murmured, “You have lost your mind, man.” She had been horrified when he had used his normal voice, and the seconds had stretched to hours as she saw her entire world shattering in her mind. The relief was immense when the Umbarian showed she was willing to keep the secret. Forcing herself to straighten and moreover take her eyes off him, she made quick introductions. Inzilbêth now looked at him in wonder, and even a hint of a smile played at her lips.

“You're very brave, sir,” she said. “I can see why she loves you so.” With that, the greater tension in the room eased. Then she looked troubled and shook her head. “It isn't right that she should be here,” she stated with a sudden fierceness. “From what my father-in-law said tonight, his quarrel's entirely with you, not her. It isn't honorable to take a woman far from her home and children just to spite her husband. I'll--” She stopped abruptly, seeming to give her next words a second and even third thought. Biting her lip, she glanced from Faramir to Éowyn, to her child, and then back to the northerners.

Éowyn pitied her as well, for the young woman had suddenly found herself entwined in events she had little preparation for. Until tonight her greatest worries had likely been for her family's comfort and, to some extent, safety, but now the danger had grown a hundredfold. Aiding either side in this fight had its own risks, but one side would have far more mercy on her.

“I'll do what little I can to help,” Inzilbêth said at last, then hurried to add, “but, please, don't expect too much. I'm not a hero.”

“For now, even a little help will be of great use,” Faramir told her gently. “Foremost we need to find a way to get Éowyn out of the castle without harm to her or the baby.”

“That's impossible,” Inzilbêth said, dismayed. “Adûn wouldn't even let me go to the town because he thought it was too dangerous. I had to slip out when he was away, and the guards at the gate were reluctant to let me pass.”

Éowyn spoke up. “Is there someone in the town we could send messages? That would at least be a start, a way to communicate what is happening outside and inside the castle. What of that washer woman who brought your first note?” she asked Faramir. She recalled the woman had seemed quite nervous when delivering the little bag, and she wondered if the laundress would even be willing to again be a go-between. “The healers have ordered to me stay in bed and rest as much as possible. When I am up, there are very few places I can go, and there is always some sort of guard watching me. Even a little exploring on my part would surely raise suspicions. Surely the Snake will be even more paranoid now, and anything I do will be under scrutiny.”

Faramir nodded while fastening the veil again. “I do not know about the laundress,” he said. “Narejde knows her, but from what I gathered she agreed to run the errand only reluctantly. I doubt she would be willing to act as a contact. But speaking of those, if all goes well, we will have established people in the castle after tonight, who are going to approach you in time. They must be careful not to reveal themselves, however, and so must you. Both of you. Neither of you must run the risk of annoying Marek, for even without his display of ruthlessness today his cruelty and lack of compassion have been obvious for a long time. I do not wish either of you to risk his wrath.”

Seeing Éowyn’s frown, he reached for her hand. “I know that this is much to ask for,” he told her quietly. “Indeed, I cannot describe how much it riles me to know that you will have to treat him with as much friendliness as you can manage. But if you can bear to play along, do it, even if it means betraying information about my doings – or what he is made to believe to be information. I do not doubt that soon he is going to learn who attended his party, and he is bound to be both angry and afraid. And as you said, he is going to tighten security even more – also because he knows who has just arrived in Umbar. If you can, make him believe that he frightened you into … well, not obedience, but at least a state of less hostility.”

“That will be difficult indeed,” Éowyn replied, squeezing his hand. "Before, things were bad enough. Now," she sighed, "I'm afraid, Faramir, more afraid than I have been in a very long time."

He swallowed hard. “So am I,” he admitted softly. “For you, and for our little one. I wish I could ease your fears somehow, but truth is I cannot. Until we find a way to free you, you will have to deal with the Snake – mostly on your own. You cannot imagine how it pains me, knowing I will not be there to interfere should he threaten or even hurt you. Therefore, do not give him reason to. Remind him that he needs you to try and save his own skin. Without the assurance that you are unscathed, this castle is going to be no refuge once your brother and his men are unleashed. Marek did not serve on the Pelennor during the War – of course not. So perhaps he needs a little account of what to expect. We shall see to his potential allies, do not worry about them.”

Running his hand along her cheek, he went on, as confidently as he managed despite his troubled feelings, “Melda, we will see this through. He did not manage to kill me, neither on Tolfalas nor in Kadall. Nor did he break me, even though, alas, he tried very hard. And he will not break you, either. Not you, not my wild shield-maiden. Remind him of who you are, and why he invited all this trouble in the first place: not because of me, because I am this evil Northerner who set out to enslave Umbar and whom he, the Saviour of the South, must destroy. Nay, he risked all this because of you. Because he desired what is not his by right. Remind him what a fool he would be to hurt or even kill what he thinks he has gained through all this effort. I greatly doubt he has ever met a woman like you before. Remind him of that as well. If he loses you, all his great designs will have been for nothing. And deep down he knows this, and fears it. So play on that fear.”

He was right, of course, Éowyn knew. She was as much a shield as she was a prisoner, and as she thought about the past week's events, she realized that the Snake had done little to physically harm her and had instead resorted to threats and sheer intimidation. This thought brought her new resolve. “I will,” she said. “Perhaps I can even convince the healers that his presence causes ill health and that he should be kept away from me for a while.”

She glanced out the window as a bell rang in the distance. “If you see Éomer soon, tell him I said to keep a cool head. He cannot take this castle in a day, no matter how much he believes he can. I do not want him in his wrath to do something foolhardy. This place is well fortified and stocked with provisions, and I fear I will be here much longer than we hope,” she said sadly. “And he is not known for his patience. As for you,” she said, giving her husband a stern look, “I do not want you risking more than is necessary as well. Twice now you have dared to enter al-Jahmîr's fortress, and I do not want to find out bad luck is waiting for a third try.” She paused, thinking carefully about her next words. They would probably hurt him, but she feared every moment he spent here that someone, somehow, would discover his identity and ruin all. Already she ached at the thought of saying goodbye to him again and remaining here.

Taking a breath to steady herself, she met his eyes and implored, “Please, do not come back yourself unless you mean to take me with you when you go. Seeing you is the greatest comfort, but the parting is so hard and the worry as you leave is so heavy. It is too great a risk. The Snake may hesitate to harm me, but for you he would not.”

He nodded. “Yes, I know. I will be careful, I promise. And the unfortunate bell has just reminded me that I must not miss my appointment with my two companions.” Drawing a deep breath, he rose. “You know what they say. Third time pays for all. When I visit next, we shall leave together.”

Turning to Inzilbêth who all the time had watched them with great interest while holding her sleeping daughter close to her chest and stroking her head, he bowed slightly. “Thank you for looking after these two. They mean everything to me. To me, and to three little boys up north who yearn for their mami’s return, not knowing yet that they will receive another sibling. I hope that one day our two families may meet in peace, and the children play together.”

Inzilbêth gave him a smile, weary and troubled, but earnest and warm. “So do I.”

Carefully so as not to wake her baby, she rose. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” she told Éowyn, then curtsied to Faramir. “I’m pleased to have met you. I’ll talk to the guards outside so that one of ours can accompany you from our quarters. And I’ll make sure nobody bursts in on you,” she added with a wink. “You’d be wanting to say farewell properly, I guess.”

With that, she moved to the door. But before she left, she turned again. “When we meet next, you’ll tell me where you had that dress made, won’t you?” she asked, suddenly looking very girlish and carefree, and almost a little embarrassed to be bringing up this light matter in dark times.

Faramir smiled. “With pleasure, my lady.”

After Inzilbêth left, Éowyn rose and wrapped her arms around Faramir, resting her head against his chest. He returned the embrace tightly, and suddenly she did not want him to leave. She longed for him to stay now that the parting was imminent, though she knew it was impossible. Her gratefulness for Inzilbêth's willing silence was overwhelming. With a word, a shout, the Umbarian woman could have given her father-in-law one of his greatest desires. She had not. Here for certain now was one friend she could turn to in this place.

“Be well,” she whispered, lifting her face to meet his eyes for the final time. When would she again have this opportunity? She forced herself to ignore the hot stinging in her eyes, refusing to give in to
exhaustion and unsteady emotion. That would only make these next moments harder. “I know you and so many others are doing all you can to end this forever. Give our friends my greetings. I hope to see them again soon. And you, you most of all.” A hot tear slipped down her cheek. “Goodnight, my love.”

Gently, he brushed away the tear with one hand while unfastening the veil once more with the other. “Goodnight, melda,” he whispered, his throat too tight to say any more. Stooping, he kissed her, still holding her close, and wishing he need not release her again. She had been right about the parting. It was harder than he had anticipated, much harder.

But part they must, and steeling himself, he ended the kiss. Swiftly covering his face again, and with a last, long glance at hers, he turned and left, closing the door behind him. When it shut, he felt like something had stabbed him in the chest.

Outside in the corridor, Inzilbêth waited with a guard, to Faramir’s surprise the same who had accompanied him to her quarters. The other soldiers looked rather bored, despite giving him a curious glance. Inzilbêth addressed him, shifting the still sleeping baby in her arms.

“Thank you for coming, my lady,” she said, and he was amazed at the straight face she managed to keep in front of the men. “I’m glad you consented to do so at this late hour. Have a safe journey, you and your companions. Will you lead her back to the gardens?” she then inquired of the guard. “You may use the side entrance and pass through our gardens. This will be shorter.”

With a last nod at Faramir and a quick smile, she left. “Well, let’s go,” said the guard, and they set out down the corridor. He still looked thoughtful. Apparently he had given the fortune teller’s words some consideration.

Faramir found it extremely difficult to concentrate on his surroundings, his thoughts still lingering with Éowyn. But he noticed when he forced himself to pay heed to where they were going that they were indeed taking a different route. There were fewer guards and servants about, a fact he appreciated.

He started when of a sudden, the young guardsman addressed him. “You’ve spoken with the foreign lady, haven’t you?” he inquired. “Is she as beautiful as they say?”

“Far more than that,” replied Faramir, feeling another sting in his chest.

“I’ve heard she even fought, back in the War. She must be very brave.” Gazing at Faramir with a tense expression, he asked, “They say her husband has returned from the dead to free her. Is that so? And do you think he will succeed?”

“Yes.”

The young man gave him a surprised glance, then nodded, falling silent again, his expression once more thoughtful. After yet another turn, they reached a door of ornate workmanship, guarded on the outside by another couple of guards. Outside, they were greeted by the balmy night air and the scents of the flowering gardens. The lights of the pavilion could faintly be descried between the branches of the dark trees swaying and whispering in a light breeze. Dimly, the noise of the feast and some soft music could be heard. Apparently the party was still going on.

“Where do you need to go? Are you accommodated in the castle?” the guard inquired after they had stepped onto a path of white gravel, visible as a winding and twisting line between neatly pruned hedgerows. Somewhere, a fountain was tinkling.

“Nay, not in the castle. Would you bring me to the sand sculpture?”

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Location: snake-hunting
As they continued along the path, Faramir noticed that the gardens were far more alive than one would usually assume at this late hour. Several people appeared to have withdrawn to the more sheltered corners between the dark trees, and interestingly they were not only couples seeking privacy, but also small groups engaged in lively yet guarded conversation. They fell silent upon hearing the footsteps of the guard and his companion, often withdrawing further into the shadows. Faramir was not surprised. After what the Snake had staged tonight, there was much need for discussion. Most likely those who had sought the dark secrecy of the gardens had yet to make up their minds about joining their host’s side, or refusing coorperation.

Again, Faramir felt tension build up inside him. Things had been running very smoothly so far. Too smoothly, he feared. His presence in Adûnakhôr’s private quarters had surely reached the ears of those in charge of security, if not the Snake himself – should someone manage to distract him from celebrating himself tonight. How were they going to react? And what about Lôkhî and Mezlâr? Had they been approached because of his little detour? Detained? Questioned?

+

Someone had stuck two torches into the Gondorian ship, damaging parts of its sandy hull and making it look like it had been struck by missiles from a catapult. The torches cast a flickering orange light upon the sculpture, but the space surrounding it was fairly dark. The colourful lamps had been extinguished, or had gone out by themselves. A small group of tired-looking servants stood close by, half screened by a low hedge, helping themselves to leftover food from a large tray. When they noticed the guard approaching, they swiftly shoved the tray aside and tried to look busy gathering up the lamps. There was no sign of Mezlâr and Lôkhî.

“Were your companions supposed to meet you here?” inquired the guardsman after casting a long glance about.

“Yes,” answered Faramir, also screening the surroundings carefully. The fact that the others were absent alarmed him. He knew he was late, but he also knew they would have waited for him, despite the delay. They would not have left without him, despite his expressed orders. Their absence boded ill. “I fear I missed our appointed time,” he went on. “Perhaps they left.”

Even as he spoke, he heard footsteps approach from the direction of the houses. Already before he could actually see them he recognised the group as soldiers, for they walked briskly in step, accompanied by the tinkle of chain-mail and the soft beat of scimitar-sheaths against armour. He acted instantly. When his companion and the servants turned to gaze at the soldiers as they rounded a hedge and came fully into view, he quietly slid behind the sand sculpture, and thence, creeping half-bent in its long shadow, softly continued towards another hedge. Slipping through an opening, he found himself on the broad steps leading down to the fountain where he had met with Al-Asad. The tinkling of the falling waters hid the soft rustling noises he made as he slid between the tall oleander-bushes making up the rear of the terraced flowerbeds. In the sweet-scented darkness he waited, listening intently to the snatches of agitated conversation issuing from the direction of the sand-sculpture. It was dangerous to linger so close, but he had to find out what the soldiers were up to, and thus perchance learn about his companions’ fate.

He had escaped none too soon, he realised instantly. The soldiers had been looking for him. He strained his ears, but the sounds of the fountain and the wind in the trees made it difficult to catch everything that was said. Still, he learned that apparently Mezlâr and Lôkhî had been found waiting for him. They had been detained by the guard, but had given their watchers the slip on the way to the watch-house near the main gate and were on the loose somewhere in the castle now. Faramir gathered to his dismay that Mezlâr had been recognised for his remarkable skill with the knives by one of Al-Jahmîr’s guests. He thought he knew what had followed. Someone must have come up with the link to Khorazîr, and so triggered the hunt. He hoped that Khorazîr himself had managed to avoid detection, but then his disguise was so good that he doubted even Al-Jahmîr would recognise him.

“We were told to look for their other companion, that mysterious fortune-teller,” said the leader of the soldiers. “We heard she was last seen entering Lord Adûnakhôr’s quarters.” Well, it looked that at least his true identity had not been discovered yet, or else that the guards had not been informed, which however he thought unlikely.

He could not quite catch his former companion’s reply, but surmised that only now the other had realised his disappearance. Voices were raised in anger, then, “She cannot have gotten very far,” the commanding officer stated. “Find her! You there, stop lurking behind that hedge.” This obviously was directed at the servants. “Get moving! Find that woman he arrived with!”

Faramir sighed. It was time to leave. His hiding-place was good, dark and tangly, the fountain’s tinkling overlaying the sounds he made while creeping deeper into the bushes. But it would not withstand a determined search of the area.

“Have you checked the fountain?” came the commander’s inquiry, uncomfortably close of a sudden. “Search the hedges as well.”

“Good luck,” whispered Faramir as he withdrew, praising the fact that these soldiers had little woodcraft. His rangers he would not have given the slip so easily, for they would have known what places to search first, and what signs to look and listen for. And they would have brought ample illumination as well. Only few of the soldiers had deemed it necessary to grab a torch to search the dark gardens.

However, the soldier’s next order he did not take as lightly. “You, return to the main gate and inform Lieutenant Diraz that the fortune-teller is on the loose as well. All entrances are to be watched double sharp. And they’re to send more men to search the castle. If either of the trio gets out, and the Master or Commander Aurens learn of it, we’ll have a big problem. And that’s mildly put.”

This was the last Faramir heard from the search party as he crept further into the bushes until he reached the other end of the grove. Thence, he made his way to another path he soon recognised as one he had been led along by Husam. Detecting no sign of pursuit, he again left the track and swiftly climbed into a large fig-tree standing near. He needed time to think, weigh his opportunities, and decide his next steps. Also, he had to change.

As cautiously as he managed, he began freed himself of headdress and veil, and then began to struggle out of the dress. He let out a soft sigh when finally the laces of the bodice loosened, and he was able to freely draw breath again. Out of the skirts, as quickly and quietly as possible between the broad-leafed branches. Then he donned the light-blue burnous over his shirt and trowers, and refastened belt and scimitar. Covering his head with the overgarment’s hood, he smiled slightly about how familiar Southron attire had become in the past months. Before, he would have considered it disguise as well. He was grateful for finally being rid of the restricting, ridiculous dress. Still, as much as he had loathed wearing it, he felt a slight tinge of regret when he carefully bundled it up and hid it high up in the branches. After all, Hanîje had invested so much skill and effort in its making.

He froze in his movements when he spotted someone moving along the path. To his relief it was no soldier, not even a servant, but two young women, giggling softly as they hurried along. They soon disappeared behind a bend in the winding path, but their presence reminded him of his own precarious situation.

He doubted their true identities had been discovered, for then the search would have been more thorough. Still, someone had turned suspicious, and now the castle was in alarm. Not long, and those in charge of security would learn of the blunder of letting the entertainers escape. Already the gates were closed and guarded, and the buildings watched. Faramir hoped that his companions had had the opportunity to change their disguise. Still, the question was how to get out. As long as it was night, it would not be difficult to hide in the vast gardens. But he must not linger until morning. Also, what of his companions? Surely, they were capable of finding their own way into safety, having the advantage of aiding each other. But what if they decided to look for him, to aid him if possible? He was rather convinced they were doing just this, the stubborn fools, searching for him instead of slipping away quietly. And surely they were searching for him near their appointed meeting-place.

There was nothing for it. He decided to at least check before attempting his own escape. He left the tree, and choosing a route that would bring him back to the sculpture by a detour, set out. As he had expected, the two sand ships were being watched. Lamps had been rekindled, and two soldiers were busy questioning another group of servants that obviously had passed by, while two others, torches in hand, were searching the flowerbeds for footprints. Faramir smiled slightly to himself as he watched them through the pungent leaves of a large bay-tree. They were looking in the right spot, but were in for a surprise.

“Here, I found something,” one called excitedly. “The lieutenant was right, someone walked here.”

“The fortune-teller?” inquired the other, drawing close with his torch.

The first shook his head, looking confused. “The marks are too large, and were made by boots. No woman has feet this size. Still, we should investigate.”

Signing to the other soldiers near the sculpture, they set off into the bushes. When the oleanders had swallowed them up, Faramir left his hiding place. The other two guards had sent the servants on their way and were debating amongst themselves. Faramir thought they looked familiar, and wondered at the same time where Lôkhî had found a uniform that actually fitted him, even the armour. Relieved that his search had been that short and effortless, he approached them.

The interrupted their agitated discussion when they spotted him, the topic of which he thought he could guess. He could tell they did not recognise him instantly, only when he stepped into the light of the lamps and torches and very briefly lowered the hood. Lôkhî drew a deep breath, and Mezlâr also seemed to relax.

“You there, whither are you going,” the smaller man addressed him curtly, obviously laying on an act should anybody overhear them. “Come here and report.” Faramir obliged. “Nice of you to show up at last,” Lôkhî went on in a low voice when he had drawn close, yet without anger. “We were quite worried.”

“Why did you not leave?” asked Faramir, also speaking quietly.

“No chance. We were discovered. After you had left, we were asked to do some more tricks. What we didn’t know then was one of the Snake’s friends knew Mezlâr. Apparently he had been wondering ever since he saw his first bit of knife-play, and finally reached the right conclusion about where to put him. We left to await your return, but we’d not reached this place when soldiers came to question us. We gave them the slip, but set the castle astir. We managed to nick the uniforms and tried to get out of the gate. But not even soldiers are allowed to pass now. We checked, and not just the main gate. Nobody gets in or out tonight. It’s not only because of us. Our friends seem to have done a good job outside, and really given Auren’s lads some trouble. It’s believed they’re trying to get inside the castle, so everything’s been sealed tight. Also, rumour goes that some of the Snake’s guests are getting uppish. Not all joined his side, and understandably so with your King’s fleet down in Umbar. A couple of them wanted to leave, so the guards received orders to, well, extend their stay a little so they can see their grand host’s wisdom and side with him. So, since we couldn’t get out, we thought we might as well try and find you, especially after we heard the fortune-teller was on the loose as well. These uniforms have been quite helpful. Since many soldiers from out-companies have been brought in to guard the place, there’s many new faces about so that even those in command don’t know everybody. Also, hierarchies have been mixed up, and responsibilities, so it’s not always clear who orders whom about.”

“We have been lucky,” fell in Mezlâr. “But we must leave before the sun gets up.”

“So we must,” agreed Faramir. “And if the gates are shut, we must try one of those routes we looked at in preparation of this venture.”

“The nasty ones, you mean,” murmured Lôkhî.

“Either that, or we risk capture, as you know well. Ask yourself what is going to be nastier.”

“Let us withdraw to a more private spot,” suggested Mezlâr, nodding to the two soldiers returning from their expedition into the bushes. “Have you found where the traces lead to?” he inquired of the guards. They shook their heads. “We were not able to follow them much further. And they were not made by a woman, anyway. What’s up with him?” he then asked, gazing at Faramir.

“We found him wandering about, and are going to bring him to the commanding officer for questioning,” explained Lôkhî. “Looks suspicious, the fellow does. One of those dirty desert-rats. You can’t trust them. You watch here.”

The guard saluted, taking up position with his companion. As he set off flanked by Mezlâr and Lôkhî, Faramir gave the small man a questioning glance. Lôkhî grinned, and pointed at the Serpent-emblem embroidered on his surcoat. “The threads are silk, not just plain cotton, meaning I’m higher in rank than the other fellows. We were really lucky to find two lads willing to lend us uniforms, which were even right in size. Hope they won’t wake too soon. Mezlâr was for silencing them permanently, but that would have spoiled the uniforms.”

“Whither shall we go?” interrupted Mezlâr. Nodding ahead to where light was falling through one of the arched doorways leading into the inner courtyards of the main building, he added, “Look, even the exits from the gardens are guarded more rigorously now.”

He was right. A group of soldiers blocked the doorway, casting long shadows towards them. It looked like they were just receiving instructions from a superior officer, since only three had actually taken up position, the others were standing together, listening attentively to a man whose armour and helmet indicated his high rank.

Mezlâr who had been walking in front slowed. “We can still turn around,” he said softly.

“The only other way out of the gardens is over the walls,” remarked Faramir, “and even if we had a rope long enough to lower us down, the battlements are watched as well – doubly now, I have no doubt.”

“And there’s sharks down there,” added Lôkhî darkly. They had almost halted, but knew they must not linger, for their hesitant behaviour would catch the attention of the guards in whose view they were. “So, what do we do?”

Although the small man was doing a good job at hiding his anxiety, Faramir knew he was getting uneasy. He felt the same. Their luck had turned, and slowly but surely, the noose was drawing ever tighter around them.

“We must get past these guards,” he said, “and then try that other way Narejde once escaped by. ‘Tis not far, and if we manage to slip in unnoticed, we should be safe from pursuit.”

“If it’s still the way it was when she used it,” observed Lôkhî with a deep frown. When they had discussed the route, neither had liked it much. It was beset with incalculable risks because they lacked recent information about it. But it seemed to be the only way out at the moment, and if it worked, it would lead them close to where Khorazîr’s soldiers and the rangers had set up camp.

“Let us try it,” said Mezlâr with habitual practicality. “Step between us,” he then told Faramir. “You are needed for questioning.”

+

There were curious glances from the guards at the doorway as the threesome stepped up. Lôkhî, his curt, decisive tone more than making up for his lack in height, briskly informed the soldiers that “the shady fellow” in their midst had been found loitering in the gardens and was therefore bound for interrogation. Again, the fact that there had been a great coming and going of soldiers from different companies during the past days helped their cause, because the guards accepted his authority without question.

“Aye, better watch these desert-folks, corporal,” fell in the officer, dismissing the men he had instructed and joining them. He was a broad, middle-aged, capable-looking man bearing the insignia of a lieutenant. “Lest they engage in any mischief. Get him up to Captain Omîd. He’s responsible for the interrogations tonight. Any luck with finding these entertainers?”

“Heard they found some traces in the flowerbeds, sir,” replied Lôkhî. “I have men investigating. They won’t get past us, lieutenant, rest assured.”

The officer nodded, then glanced to where the lights of the pavilion were visible in the distance. Soft music was carried towards them on the wind. “Still at it, the lords are. It’s going to be a long night.”

Lôkhî saluted. “So it is, sir.” Then giving Faramir a slight shove, they set in motion again. They had passed the doorway and reached the colonnades of the courtyard within, when, “Wait,” the lieutenant stopped them. All three froze, and Faramir saw Mezlâr raise his hand to his belt and the dagger stuck into it.

“That scimitar you carry,” the lieutenant stepping up addressed Lôkhî, “I couldn’t help noticing that it looks exactly like the one Corporal Alêf of Second Company carries. Exactly – and he commissioned it especially from that swordsmith in Umbar, after he’d inherited most generously from his uncle. Boasted with it not a week ago.” His eyes narrowed as he studied the “corporal”. “Explain!”

Lôkhî gazed up at the lieutenant, then drew the blade and handed it to the other haft-first. “It’s a most beautiful weapon, isn’t it,” he said, watching the soldier weigh it in his hand and study the inlays on the handle appreciatively. Faramir noticed the desire in the lieutenant’s eyes. “And Alêf, if you excuse me saying so if he’s a friend of yours, sir, was quite a fool when he put it at stake last night.”

“At stake?” the lieutenant frowned disapprovingly, tearing his gaze from the weapon. “You have been gambling again? I know the fellows from Second Company are notorious for it, but you also know the orders. I’ll have to report you.”

Lôkhî bowed his head dejectedly, before raising his eyes slightly to give his “superior” a sidelong glance. “Well, so you should, sir, but, honestly, with all these dangerous entertainers on the lose and all of us more than busy … I doubt the captains would want to deal with this minute matter tonight. Why don’t you …,” he gave a small sigh as if having to part from a beloved friend, “why don’t you … confiscate the weapon. I’m more than sorry to see it go, but since I came by it unlawfully …” Unfastening the sword-belt, he handed it to the other.

“Let that be a warning to you, corporal,” the lieutenant said sternly, sheathing the blade. “No more gambling. And now get out of my sight, and see that the desert-rat doesn’t make trouble.”

“Aye, sir. Thank you, sir,” said Lôkhî, saluting deferentially. Faramir received another push. “Get a move on, desert-rat,” the “corporal” commanded curtly. And softly he added, “Let’s get bloody out of here.”

+

The courtyard was dark, and, thankfully, quite deserted when the threesome, after numerous passages along winding, branching corridors and the colonnades of other, similar courts halted in the black shadows of a door.

“You’re sure this is the right one?” asked Lôkhî doubtfully, gazing over the herring-bone patterned paving-stones towards the well in the midst of the courtyard. “I lost track in this maze of corridors and passages you led us through.”

“We had to avoid those still brightly lit and thus likely to be populated, and the living quarters,” explained Faramir. “Here, we are between the servants’ quarters, the kitchens for the watch-companies and some of the storage buildings – at least according what Sakalthôr and Azrahil indicated on our maps. ‘Tis not far to the outer walls facing the city, either, and the main gate.”

A rustle of cloth indicated Mezlâr’s return. “I checked the courtyard. All the windows are dark and most are shuttered, too. If we are to risk it, then now.”

“You need to get rid of the mail, and the other over-garments,” advised Faramir. “’Tis high summer, and the past days have been dry, yet there may still be some swimming involved.”

“Is the cistern this large?” asked Lôkhî. “I confess I’m not that good a swimmer.” Mezlâr, too, did not look like he appreciated the prospect of swimming.

“According to what Narejde said, yes,” answered Faramir while shedding burnous, belt and tunic. “The difficulty will be to find the right exit up into the aqueduct. We shall not have any light down there. I will climb down and see what I can find while you hide the clothes and uniforms. Follow me quickly. I doubt we shall remain undisturbed for much longer.”

After surveying the courtyard carefully once again from behind one of the pillars, he quickly crossed the flagstones to the well. It was round and covered with a wooden lid. Several buckets stood to the side, as well as a wide stone trough still half filled with water. Also there was a winch and a sturdy rope with a hook the buckets could be attached to for the drawing of water. The lid was remarkably heavy. Faramir set it down carefully so as not to make any noise. As he leaned over the well to study its walls in search for rungs or steps for climbing, he noticed that despite the darkness he could see the light of the stars reflected on the water’s surface. The well was quite full.

Casting a glance over his shoulder to ascertain his companions were following, he saw they were still undressing in the shadows of the colonnades. Quickly, he unfastened the rope from the winch and wound it round his waist, suspecting they would require it. Then he climbed over the rim and lowered himself into the well. It was about his arm’s length in diameter. The walls in the upper part were of smooth, even masonry, while further below the well had been hewn directly into the rock. Iron rungs, slippery with moisture and a thin layer of moss in the upper parts had been set into one side.

As he climbed down carefully, Faramir halted often to study the surrounding walls for openings. But neither could he see anything nor feel any draft of air. He knew there was a side passage leading towards the large cistern underneath the courtyard at the main gate, but the deeper he climbed, the more he feared that because of the high waterlevel this tunnel was submerged.

He had almost reached the water when a sound from above caused him to stop. He heard voices, and then, dimly but unmistakably, the clash of metal. There was little doubt: his companions had been discovered. For a brief moment he debated with himself whether to continue, but almost immediately started to climb up again. At the very least he had to see what was going on.

He found his fears confirmed when cautiously he peered over the rim of the well. Lôkhî and Mezlâr were engaged in fierce combat with a number of guards, flitting in and out of the shadows of the colonnades. Faramir could make out four men, with a fifth and sixth already lying on the ground, one even quite close to the well. Waiting for a moment when the battle had once more withdrawn into the pillared walkway, he slipped over the rim and grabbing the fallen soldier’s scimitar, approached the attacking guards from behind. Taken thus by surprise, the fight was ended quickly.

But as the three companions stood leaning against a doorframe to catch their breath, surveying the grisly scene, suddenly Mezlâr swayed, and Faramir saw that he had received a long cut along his right leg that was bleeding profusely. “Get him into the well,” Faramir told Lôkhî hurriedly. “Do not delay. Try and staunch the bleeding. I shall hide the bodies and follow you.”

“You go, Dúnadan,” said Mezlâr through gritted teeth, pressing a hand to his wound.

“And leave you here? Forget it, Mezlâr. Get into the well. We have made it this far, and I will not suffer anybody to be left behind.”

Supported by Lôkhî, Mezlâr set out, leaving a trail of bloodstains on the flagstones. Quickly, Faramir moved the bodies of the soldiers into a dark edge of the walkway, where a few steps led down to a locked door, a cellar maybe. Then he fetched a bucket and water from the trough, and washed away the blood on the ground, constantly casting nervous glances at the dark windows above him and the entrances to the courtyard. But apparently the soldiers had not managed to raise the alarm, for he remained undisturbed until he had climbed back into the well. Having placed the lid so that he could reach by leaning over the rim, with an effort he replaced it, shutting his companions and himself in the dark.

The two had climbed down to the water’s surface, and he followed as far down as he could.

“How is your leg, Mezlâr?” he asked in a whisper, concernedly.

“You should have left me behind, I will only hinder your escape,” came the grim reply, a hoarse, slightly echoing murmur in the darkness.

“He’ll live, at least for now,” said Lôkhî. “I bound the wound. But where’s our way? Did you find it?”

“There was not enough time,” replied Faramir, unwinding the rope from his waist and lowering one end to Lôkhî who stood closest to the water. “And I fear ‘tis submerged. I will have to look for it under water. It should be opposite this ladder. Hold on to this rope. You may have to pull me back. If I get through alright, I will try and fasten the rope so you can use it as a guideline.”

“But if the tunnel is filled with water, where will you go?” asked the small man.

“According to what Narejde said, there is air again in the cistern. I doubt ‘tis filled completely. I will have to dive through the tunnel and hope to reach the surface on the other side.”

For a moment, there was silence from below. Faramir thought he could almost hear their doubt and worry. “Good luck, Dúnadan,” whispered Mezlâr, clutching his shoulder briefly as he squeezed past. Lôkhî, too, had moved as far out of the way as possible in order to let him climb past him. “Tug on the rope if you need us to retrieve you,” he said as slowly Faramir slid into the surprisingly cold water.

Drawing a deep breath, he dived down, feeling for an opening in the wall. A faint current led him to a round, narrow hole, about twice his own length of body underneath the surface, and deep enough to make him feel the water’s pressure in his ears. A faint stinging in his lungs reminded him of his recent injury. He had always been an excellent swimmer and diver, but apparently the damage the arrow had done was not entirely healed yet. Pulling himself up along the wall, he resurfaced, reporting to his companions after he had drawn several deep breaths.

The next expedition into the deeps led him into the tunnel. It was just wide enough for his shoulders, and he hoped it was not going to get any narrower. The current was stronger here, a steady inflow of water from the other end of the tunnel, but did not hinder him. What did deter him, however, was an obstacle far more massive. When he had swum for what he reckoned to be about the length of the courtyard, from the well to its outer wall, and he felt he was running out of air, his outstretched hands met something hard and unyielding: a metal grille set firmly into the walls on either side.

He gave a tug on the rope, knowing that without his companions’ aid he would not manage to return out of his own strength. When finally his head shot through the surface again, he gasped for air. This time, it took him far longer to catch his breath enough to be able to speak.

“What now?” asked Lôkhî dejectedly. “Any chance of removing this thing?”

“I will try. I need one of your daggers, Mezlâr, in case it is screwed into the walls. I will have to move more quickly along the tunnel, in order to keep enough air for work down there. I believe the cistern to be right behind the grille, so if I get through I just have to swim up.”

“If it isn’t? Here, the dagger. Don’t risk too much down there.”

There were no screws. The iron poles had been set directly into the rock, and would not budge as he shook and pulled. Every time he returned to his companions, even though he could not see their expressions he could feel their increasing worry. Mezlâr’s wound was troubling him far more than he would admit, and after Faramir had returned from a particularly long dive and finally had managed to get his breathing under control again, he could hear what the other two must have detected earlier: there were faint voices audible from above. So far, nobody had removed the lid and gazed into the well, but it was only a matter of time – if only to draw some water.

Deciding to attempt the passage for a last time before admitting defeat, Faramir dived feet first into the tunnel, and kicked against them with all force. Again, the poles did not move. Faramir tried again, until, finally, when his head had already begun to throb dully for lack of air, his boots hit a spot where the iron had quite corroded. The pole broke, and then another, and one more – enough for him to bend aside the grille.

His strength was waning quickly. And even with the help of the others, the way back into the well was long. The other way – he did not know if and when there would be any air. There was a tug on the rope. His companions were worrying. He made up his mind in an instant, wriggled through the opening, and again pulling himself along the wall, he dived up. The throbbing in the back of his head had become a searing pain, and there were lights before his eyes. His arms and legs felt like lead, his lungs burned like fire.

And then, suddenly, his head was no longer surrounded by water. He gasped for air, noticing dimly how his gasp echoed around him. But for the present he did not heed echoes and their implication for his whereabouts. For several minutes, he was simply concerned with breathing, before another tug reminded him of his companions. Since his eyes had become accustomed to the completely darkness of the well and were striving to catch even the faintest light, he noticed that the cavern or cistern he was in was not entirely dark. There appeared to be some opening in the ceiling, whence dim illumination, of lamps or torches, perhaps, issued down. He recalled that there was another well in the great courtyard.

Another tug, strong and impatient, pulled him below the surface. He struggled up again, and untied the rope from his waist to fasten it to another flight of iron rungs he had detected on the wall, not far from the tunnel he had come from. It was just long enough. The rungs led up into another vertical shaft very like the one of the well his companions were waiting in. Faramir assumed the well of the great courtyard to be right above him, and he thought he could dimly hear voices, and the clatter of footsteps on pavement. Quickly, he moved away from the shaft. Then, reluctantly, he drew a deep breath again and dived down into the darkness to return to his companions. With the aid of the rope, he managed to move more quickly.

He encountered Lôkhî in the water, in the entrance to the tunnel from the well’s side. Together they returned to Mezlâr, and Faramir instructed the others what to expect on the other side. With the help of the rope, which he had used for his return-journey, the dive was manageable without the danger of suffocation, although in Mezlâr’s case Faramir worried that he might not be able to move quickly enough with his injured leg. However, both Southrons, despite claiming they were only moderate swimmers, reached the other side safely. Faramir brought up the rear, removing the rope in the process because he suspected they would need it still on their further route.

This proved to be difficult to find at first. The cistern was large, and there were a number of tunnels branching off. Some were also secured with grilles against rats or flotsam. A narrow shelf, just above the current waterline ran along one side of the cistern, most likely for maintenance purposes. Faramir climbed it while the others remained in the water, since for Mezlâr swimming proved less toilsome for his leg. Finally, a faint trickle of water from above led them to what they hoped was the right exit. Faramir discovered another ladder set into the rock, leading up to a black hole from which issued a narrow stream that fell tinkling into the cistern.

Unlike the tunnels they had encountered so far, this one was rectangular in diameter, and almost high enough for Faramir to walk upright, which he noted to his surprise and joy. He had dreaded a long crawl or stooped walk along the aqueduct, and now praised the builders of old, Númenóreans most likely, who had taken into account that for maintenance reasons, a man had to be able to walk through the tunnels. For Mezlâr, too, this discovery was a stroke of luck. He and Lôkhî did not even have to stoop their heads when they had climbed up into the opening, and stood leaning against the moist walls, black shapes against the fainter darkness of the cistern, resting briefly before setting out again, Faramir in front, then Mezlâr, and Lôkhî bringing up the rear.

“And this runs all the way into the hills?” asked the small man in a low voice, to avoid creating an echo. “Remarkable workmanship.”

“Yes indeed. It runs on for several leagues, with an ever constant gradient,” replied Faramir, feeling his way along the walls to either side. “We even saw parts of it. According to the old maps and Narejde’s account, the aqueduct comprises a part of the wall we passed through into the orchards. The watercourse must run just underneath the battlements. We must be extremely careful to be quiet.”

“How do we get out again?” asked Mezlâr hoarsely. “In this dark, we cannot be sure how far we have proceeded, and when we have left those walls behind.”

“I shall count my steps,” said Faramir. “They used the old Númenórean measurements on the maps, which were based on men of about my height. When the aqueduct reaches the hills, there must be vertical shafts in the rock the builders created in order to measure the gradient whenever the watercourse crosses a hill. We might get out through one of those, or else we must continue to the spring that feeds the conduit.”

Mezlâr snorted. “Several leagues,” he muttered.

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According to what Faramir recalled of the references to distances on the maps he had studied, the aqueduct ran underneath the orchard wall’s battlements for about two miles. Their journey was a slow and silent one. Apart from feeling his way in the pitch dark, he had to concentrate on counting his steps, which he soon found difficult. Soon after the entrance into the tunnel the ceiling lowered considerably, and there were places where due to accumulations of limestone sinter the walls had approached each other uncomfortably close. Therefore, he could not quite walk upright and thus advance with his normal length of stride, a fact he suspected impaired his correct reckoning considerably. Also, there was Mezlâr’s injury. Although the Southron did not complain but trudged on stoically, his increasingly laboured breathing caused Faramir to slow, until, when after what felt like many hours wandering through utter darkness, but in fact could not have been more than two, he halted altogether to wait for his companions.

According to his estimations, they had reached the end of the wall and thus the point where the aqueduct met the first hill-slope, leaving its elevated course to run level with the natural ground for a while, before entering the hillside as a tunnel. So far the watercourse had followed an almost straight line, but at this point there was a sharp bend to the right. Sediment had settled in a shallow depression, which also served to break the water’s force.

From time to time during their journey Faramir thought he had heard footsteps overhead, muffled by the thick slaps of stone that constituted ceiling and roof of the conduit. Now there was silence except for the steady gurgle of the water. The air was almost still. Formerly in regular intervals, draughts of air had wafted through fissures in the ceiling. Faramir surmised that at these points the stone slabs were lighter and could be lifted, to allow both access to the watercourse for maintenance purposes, and also to enable the guards manning the battlements to fetch fresh water without leaving their posts. Luckily, nobody had done so during their passage. Still, Faramir would have welcomed the possibility to actually stick his head out of the dark tunnel for a moment to catch some fresh air and maybe even the first light of dawn. Being confined in dark and narrow spaces, at least for a while, did not bother him under normal circumstances. However, this constant darkness and the fact he could not stand upright were beginning to tell on him.

As they settled for another rest, Mezlâr sighed. Due to the constant flow of water on the ground it was uncomfortable to actually sit down, yet the guard seemed to exhausted to remain standing. All three were still soaked, and due to the steady faint draught in the conduit they were cold. Also, it had been a long and eventful day, and now that the acute danger of discovery and capture seemed over, all three felt their weariness with each step more. Faramir’s stomach gave a roar when he settled against the wall in order to stretch his neck and shoulders, tense and aching from stooping constantly.

“Guess none of you thought about bringing food, eh?” remarked Lôkhî in a soft voice. “Mezlâr and I managed to grab some while waiting for you, but those were just morsels. I’m starving, and you just sounded like you’re as well, Dúnadan.”

Before Faramir could answer, Mezlâr asked, “How did you fare?” His voice sounded fairly strong and steady, but Faramir noted the pain and exhaustion the Southron was trying to hide from his companions.

“Yes,” fell in Lôkhî. “We didn’t have time to ask earlier. Did you manage to meet your beloved?”

Faramir gave them a brief account of his meeting with Éowyn. Even though he could not see his companions, their sharp intakes of breath betrayed their surprise about his revelation to Inzilbêth.

“That was bloody risky,” commented Lôkhî. “One word from her, and a host of guards would have arrived. What told you to trust her?”

Faramir shrugged, before recalling that the others could not see the gesture. “She is much more mature and independent than what her husband and surroundings make her believe. Also I had noticed the extend of her friendship with Éowyn. Yes, it was risky, but I balanced this risk against what I had learned of her. Usually, I can rely on my judgement, and it did not betray me this time, either. In her I think we have found a powerful ally, especially if she does some subtle work on Adûnakhôr. Executing his brother was the greatest mistake the Snake could have made.”

“Yes, it was foolish,” agreed Lôkhî. “It may have shown his utter ruthlessness once again, but who needed another display of that? It’s a well-known fact that Marek doesn’t have any scruples when dealing with his foes, and not even with those he calls his friends. He may find some new allies through this appalling display, but only those who’re going to join him out of fear.”

“And whose fear of him is greater than that of the tarks,” added Mezlâr. “I wish I knew how our friends and Lord Khorazîr are faring.”

“Aye, hopefully they managed to get away in time,” said Lôkhî. “If the lord is shut in, things might get dangerous for him.”

“I do not think we have to worry about Khorazîr,” said Faramir confidently. “He looks so unlike himself that I doubt anybody would recognise him, and he knows the castle well enough to find places to hide, in case the gates were closed already. Also, his presence is unlikely to be expected inside. I am more worried about Narejde, Azrahil and the others. They are going to be hunted, and can only hope to reach Mablung and our people ere their pursuers reach them. Then again, they are familiar with the countryside.”

He sighed, brushing his moist hair out of his eyes. “How about it, Mezlâr? Do you feel strong enough to move on? We should be able to leave the tunnel soon, but I may be way out of my reckoning.”

“Lead on,” came the short reply.

+

As they walked on, soon the conduit became even narrower due to increased accumulations of limestone sinter along the sidewalls. Faramir heard Lôkhî snort contemptuously behind him when they had reached a particularly tight spot. “Guess Marek should have invested more of his stolen wealth into the maintenance of this watercourse instead of throwing ridiculous parties,” he muttered.

“I doubt there has been any maintenance here for the past centuries,” mused Faramir. “And certainly not since the Al-Jahmîrs took over at Ihimbra. They just took the aqueduct as another commodity.”

“Aye, that sounds like them. Pity it still worked, for otherwise they would have been forced to get water some other way, and that’d have been difficult on top of that red rock.”

“Well, they do collect rainwater,” said Faramir. “At least several cisterns are marked on the maps for exactly this purpose. But I doubt they use it as drinking water.”

Lôkhî whistled softly. “Doesn’t that put us in a wonderful position? If it came to a siege, we could easily block their water supply, or do nasty things to it. It’s been a dry summer. I doubt they have much rainwater left.”

“I admit this thought has crossed my mind as well,” said Faramir, “but as practicable as it sounds, I do not like all of its implications. Remember, there are persons in the castle we do not want to be affected by thirst. And poisoning the water – nay, I strongly object to that. This would mean stooping to the same means as the Snake himself. I know what it is like having to drink poisoned water every day, and I do not wish this experience upon anybody, not even Al-Jahmîr. There must be another way.”

Judging by the sounds, Lôkhî was shaking his head. “Sometimes I think you are too soft-hearted, Dúndadan. Don’t you wish for his destruction, and revenge for all the ills you and your loved ones have suffered?”

“Yes, I do, for the former. I want to make sure he is no danger anymore, for anyone. As for revenge … There were times when I felt an acute desire for it. And I may do so again. But ever since our encounter in the orchard and especially the meeting today I have seen my attitude change. Certainly, sometimes I long to make him suffer the way I have and as a revenge for what he has done to Éowyn and to all the others he has harmed. But tell me, what would I gain by making him as miserable as he made me? What would I win by that? Unlike him, I take neither pleasure nor satisfaction in other people’s suffering. On the contrary, it appals me. What I want is justice, no longer revenge. And safety, that most of all: for my own family, and for this entire region. If we are not careful, we are moving headfirst into another war, a conflict neither side can afford or desire. It would mean more than a decade of hard work establishing a fairly peaceful, stable relationship between South and North wasted.”

The others were silent for a while, but then Mezlâr said. “I can see the wisdom in your words, but I doubt this matter will be resolved peacefully. And even though you may no longer wish for personal revenge, there are many others who do, who even consider it their duty. We see these things differently down here.”

“Aye, so you do. And with good reasons, perhaps,” replied Faramir. “Maybe I am indeed not ruthless enough. Maybe I should have disposed of Al-Jahmîr years ago, when we felt his malevolent influence for the first time. Indeed, many in my own country are criticising me severely for this neglect. They see things just the way your people do, Mezlâr, and even now call for strong and swift action in the South – not only to quench uprisings. Do not believe that the danger of war is fuelled by Southern warlords and upstarts like Al-Jahmîr only. It always needs two sides for a conflict. And there are many in Gondor who desire to see the rebellious South as just another province of their realm, under the rule of the King – or rather, their own, to reap from it whatever riches they desire, all under the pretence of fair and honest trade, of course. But trade is a mutual undertaking, at least to my understanding. Both sides need to gain something by it. Yet this is not how many of my fellow countrymen define the term. And sadly, too often their particular definition is based on how trade is practiced. In truth more often than not only one side has advantages. To my shame I have to acknowledge that my nation has an all but impeccable record. Therefore, I can understand Umbar’s desire to be free of Gondorian rule, because too often we have come as conquerors, and no country likes to be conquered. Yet it would be wrong to see Umbar as a victim of the cruel tarks only, when itself acts as an aggressor, raiding our coasts or the lands of its neighbours.”

“It astounds me hearing you talk so,” fell in Lôkhî. “Don’t you wish for your realm to extend like it used to, in the olden days. From the rising of the sun in the far East to the uttermost South where the stars are strange, and west, and north to where the sun doesn’t sink in summer and doesn’t come up all winter?”

Faramir laughed softly. “Alas, no. You are right, those were the “olden days”, still glorified by many, yet for the wrong reasons. Gondor was a huge realm then, but its vast expansion was dearly bought. The people then had not learned from history, and acted just like the Númenoreans before them: conquering and expanding, without taking into account that you can only stretch your resources so far ere they become depleted. So Gondor learned the lesson the hard way, and still some do not seem to have learned at all. Do you have any idea what effort it takes to maintain a realm such as Gondor used to be in the days of Hyarmendacil? In the past they had more and other means for keeping it: greater military resources, and simply more people. Also, they possessed more refined means for the gathering of news from afar. Our resources are far more limited.

“Therefore, in my opinion (which is not appreciated by all) Gondor is more than large enough the way ‘tis now. In fact it is part of an even greater realm now, the Reunited Kingdom. We tend to forget about the North now and again, because presently most of our efforts are concentrated on the Harad and parts of the East. Speaking for myself, I would rather have it small and prosperous, and at peace with its neighbours – sovereign countries themselves, no mere provinces answerable to Minas Tirith. Aye, I would prefer this to seeing Gondor extend to the edges of the known world, but with constant strife along its borders, and contention in its very centre.”

“Here speaks our northern oppressor!” stated Lôkhî. “No wonder you’re somewhat unpopular with certain people in your own country. I daresay you’re not one to keep such opinions to yourself.”

“Not exactly, no,” agreed Faramir.

“Thought so. I keep forgetting that you’re not one of us, but of the nobility. But for the way you talk you fit in so well with us lowly folk, if you forgive my saying so. You’re not stern and aloof like other lords. And you seem strangely unambitious. That’s uncanny for one of your descend, you know that?”

“Well, Lôkhî, what shall I say? You were successful with sticking me into a dress. So much for aloofness, I reckon,” replied Faramir, smiling. “And as for ambition … well, I never planned on becoming Steward, nor on acquiring a princedom one day. I had an elder brother who was bound for the Stewardship, ere we knew that Gondor was going to have a king again. Then came the War, which altered many things. Ambition can be good, to move things and achieve changes for the better. But too often it moves beyond that stage, turning into obsession, viciousness and cruelty.”

“Aye, and we have a prime example of that down in Ihimbra, don’t we?” said Lôkhî darkly. “But wait, what is this? Do you feel it? There is another draught of air. Could there be an opening nearby? I can’t wait to leave this dark hole.”

Faramir halted. Now that he concentrated on it, he could also feel the cooler air on his moist skin and clothes. He welcomed the draught, as the dark seemed to have become increasingly oppressive the narrower the channel had become. “Maybe ‘tis one of those shafts I mentioned earlier,” he mused, “yet I wonder that it should be open like this and not covered. And if it is uncovered, we should be seeing at least a tiny glimpse of light.”

“Do the guards know about these shafts?” asked Mezlâr hoarsely. Faramir noted the utter exhaustion in his companion’s voice, which apparently he could not conceal any longer. They had to get out of this tunnel quickly and find a place to hide and rest, or else he feared Mezlâr was not going not make it.

“I doubt it,” he replied, trying to sound confident. “Still, they should know whither the aqueduct leads and where it ends. I am not sure they have realised yet we escaped this way. But they will, eventually. We can only hope that by the time they send out a search party we will have found a safe spot to hide. You two, stay here and rest for a moment. I shall go ahead and try and find whence the draught comes.”

Faramir did not have to proceed much further until he noticed a subtle change in the soft echo his steps were creating. Also, the draught became stronger, carrying a faint earthy smell. Suddenly, there was no ceiling, although the darkness did not lighten. Carefully, Faramir rose to his full height, stretching his aching back and shoulders. Reaching up as far as he could, he felt the rocky walls of a vertical shaft. His heart gave a leap when one of his searching hands also found the rough surface of an iron rung, rusty and half-decayed by its feel, but intact, seemingly. He whistled softly to test the length of the shaft, but found it difficult to calculate the distance by the faint echo.

Returning to his companions, he quickly reported what he had found. “I will check if I can climb up,” he said. “Hand me the rope, Lôkhî.”

Coiling up the rope and tying one end round his waist, while hanging the rest over his shoulders, he crept back to the shaft and began to climb. The rungs though rusty seemed stable, and were set at regular intervals. However, to Faramir’s dismay, these had been measured by Númenórean standards. This posed no problem for him, but he knew that especially Lôkhî would be facing difficulties due to his height. The longer he climbed, the more he became aware of the long dark drop beneath. The shaft was narrow, less than his arm’s length in diameter, and there was no way of knowing how much further it rose. The gurgle of the water in the conduit below became softer and softer until it was almost entirely replaced by the draught hissing in the shaft. Still there was no light to be seen, and eventually Faramir learned why.

He had climbed almost twice the rope’s length (after the first length he had tied it to one of the rungs to catch him should he slip and fall) when suddenly his head hit the ceiling. Running a hand along the rough stones, he noticed that this was no natural rock. Apparently masons had closed the shaft. He could feel where the blocks of stone had been joined together. Rows of tiny stalactites had begun to grow in these fissures, indicating that the shaft had been closed like this for a long time. However, the draught was still discernable, and reaching out in front of him, Faramir felt his hand grasp into empty space. There was another opening. Extending a leg, his boot found a ledge, and his searching hand the side of another tunnel. Handholds had been carved into the sides, which he grasped to pull himself into the opening.

The tunnel was almost high enough for him to walk upright. Freeing himself of the rope, he went forward slowly. The earthy smell was more prominent here, and what was even more welcome, the darkness began to lighten. The tunnel ascended steadily. Breathing more freely, Faramir advanced at greater speed towards the light. Finally, when the floor levelled once more, he saw a sliver of brightness outlining an opening half-blocked by a stone door standing slightly ajar. Slowly adjusting his eyes to the light, he approached. The opening was wide enough for him to squeeze through.

He found it to be very early morning in the world outside, and himself on the slope of a hill overlooking a narrow, wooded valley. There were the remains of an old track or road leading to the door, its broad paving stones much overgrown by gorse and all kinds of shrubs and herbs. A few dark pines stood between them, rising out of a layer of fine mist covering the ground in shreds like white cloth. The sun had not risen yet, there was little light in the dale, yet morning was approaching. The first birds were beginning to wake in the underbrush, and the night insects were interrupting their concert for the coming of the new day.

For a moment Faramir stood leaning against the door, breathing the fresh air and surveying the countryside as best as this was possible in the faint, greyish light. Also, he listened closely to the sounds of the woodland creatures in order to catch any disturbance or irregularity that might indicate strangers in the valley. But all seemed peaceful, and thus, knowing that he must fetch his companions, with a sigh he turned his back onto the morning and stepped back into the darkness.

+

By the time all three had exited the tunnel, the light had grown considerably in the valley, and the cicadas and other nightly insect had fallen silent altogether. The last stage of their journey had been hard and exhausting work. Faramir marvelled about Mezlâr’s endurance during the arduous climb during which the injured had needed all the help his companions could muster. Again he did not give any indication of being in pain, though the effort to conceal it must have been enormous. When helped along by the Dúnadan the guard finally reached the door, Faramir was shocked by the pallor the Haradan’s strongly tanned features carried. Despite the tight bandage Lôkhî had applied to the wound, the cut had bled profusely. Only now that their clothes were beginning to dry the bleeding seemed to still.

“Any idea where we are?” inquired Lôkhî, sitting down on a rock and emptying his boots of water.

“Not far enough from Ihimbra to feel safe yet,” replied Faramir, surveying the valley. “The orchards are just on the other side of this hill. We must not tarry here, at least not so close to the shaft.”

Lôkhî cast a worried glance towards Mezlâr who sat leaning with his back against the door, his eyes closed. “He won’t manage to walk much further,” he said in a low voice.

“There will be no need,” fell in Mezlâr, having obviously overheard his friend. “You go on and find the rangers. You have squandered precious time already dragging me along.”

Faramir turned to the guard. “If you think you can get rid of us so easily, Mezlâr, you are mistaken,” he said sternly. “As I said before: we are not going to leave you behind.”

“Sentimental fool,” muttered the addressed.

“Right,” returned Faramir, “that I am. Too softhearted, you remember? And extremely stubborn, too. So do not even think about starting a discussion. You would lose anyway. You will come along, even if we have to carry you.”

Mezlâr opened an eye. “Before I suffer to be carried around by a tark,” he stated, with the faintest trace of a smile, “I rather crawl.”

+

As soon as the Haradan felt recovered enough to continue, they set out along the old road in a eastward direction. On the even, stony ground they left no traces, and it proved an easier route than through the tangled underbrush, especially considering Mezlâr’s state. Lôkhî went ahead to scout the area, while Faramir followed behind with the wounded half-leaning on his shoulder. When after a short ascend the road was lost in a thicket of wild fig-trees, the roots of which had cracked the paving stones, they halted. The sun had risen far enough to set the east-facing hillside aglow, dissolving the shreds of mist clinging to the bushes.

Pointing into the trees, “Food at last,” declared Lôkhî happily as they settled down underneath the broad, many-fingered leaves. He climbed up to gather some of the riper fruits and deal them out to his companions. “I also saw opuntias on the hill-slopes, and there are bound to be other fruit around. We won’t starve.”

“Nevertheless, we cannot afford to spend much time looking for food,” cautioned Faramir. “We must still reckon with pursuit, and like this we are extremely vulnerable, armed with daggers only.”

“How shall we proceed anyway?” inquired Lôkhî round a bite from a fruit. “We can’t leg it all day through this country with no clear destination.”

“If we continue eastwards, we should reach the main road to Umbar,” explained Faramir, “which we want to avoid. Still, we must move on in that direction, at least for a while until we have reached the end of the valley. This old road here should branch into north, back to Ihimbra, and south, following the course of the aqueduct at some distance. It must have been built for maintenance purposes, too, connecting all the shafts. But the hillsides are too steep around here to allow for a direct path.”

“Perhaps we should have stayed in the tunnel, then,” mused Lôkhî, “and followed it to the source.”

Mezlâr shook his head slightly. “It is better out here,” he said, and Faramir had to agree.

“We would have spent the better part of the day down there, and who knows if it remains wide enough for people to pass. Nay, we must try our luck in the open, and hope that rangers are about scouting the countryside, looking for us.”

“And that they are the only ones doing so,” added Mezlâr darkly.

+

Near the crossroads Faramir had described the track began to show signs of repair. Trees and bushes had been cleared away, and the pavement renewed in places. Also, there was indication of cultivation, of trees felled and the tangled underbrush tamed by fire, to be replaced by rows of olive- and mulberry-trees. Stonewalls formed enclosures for animals, deserted now, but showing traces of frequent use.

The three proceeded with even greater caution, until Faramir bade the two Southrons hide behind a juniper next to one of the walls. Mezlâr needed another break anyway. The Dúnadan went on alone, flitting from one tree-shadow to the next until he could see the crossroads. There seemed nobody around. The only living thing he could see was a slender grey snake sunning itself on the warming stones. It wound away lazily upon feeling Faramir’s approach.

Then a faint noise caused the Dúnadan to tense. It might have been a bird, but it might also have been a whistling call, a signal. It had not come from the direction of his companions. Leaving the road to hide behind one of the low walls, Faramir crept alongside it towards the sound. There it was again, louder this time – louder, and recognisable. He almost laughed out loud for relief. Instead, however, he replied with the proper answering signal, indicating he was a friend.

There was a pause, then another whistle came, to which again he replied, to cease all doubt. A figure could be seen stepping out of the shadow of a large pine some hundred yards away, even as Faramir rose from behind the wall. As the other came fully into the light and approached him, Faramir gazed at him in surprise. He was dressed like a corsair, only less brightly coloured, his face tanned and his dark hair slightly bleached from the sun. “Dorgil?”

“Captain!” The healer broke into a run, but after a few steps he slowed, clutching his side and cursing under his breath. Apparently his injury was still bothering him. Faramir leaped over the wall and quickly closed the distance. The healer’s face split into a broad grin as he reached out to grasp Faramir’s hands, pull him into a brief embrace. Releasing him again with a somewhat embarrassed smile, he gazed at his superior.

“Sorry, captain. I’m just so relieved to see you alive and well.”

“Likewise, Dorgil. You look quite recovered.”

“So I am. Though not yet fit for running, it seems.”

“But how come you here? I thought you were still on Azrubâr’s ship.”

“They are on their way to Umbar, after hearing of our fleet arriving there. I asked to be dropped off here, to return to my company and wait for you. In case you have not noticed, Cemendur and Alacar are about as well, as is young Dírhael. They were sent to fetch me. They spotted something near that juniper over there and went to investigate.”

“Mezlâr and Lôkhî are down there,” explained Faramir swiftly, upon which Dorgil gave another whistle to inform his companions that the two Southrons were friends. “’Tis a stroke of luck to meet you here, of all people,” Faramir went on. “Mezlâr is wounded and in need of your skills.”

The healer gave a nod as if he had been expecting the announcement. “I knew I would be needed here,” he said with a grim but also somewhat satisfied smile. “Let’s have a look at his injury, then. How are you?” He gave Faramir a long, searching glance. “Do your injuries still trouble you? And, captain, what happened to your eyes?”

“Why?”

“They are surrounded by black. Have you been in a brawl? Did you receive a blow?”

Faramir laughed. “Ah, no, this is black khol.”

Dorgil raised an eyebrow. “That stuff the ladies use? Why should you be wearing it?”

“Ask Lôkhî. He will gladly tell you the entire story. We have just returned from a visit to Al-Jahmîr’s very castle, during which I wore a rather … unusual disguise.”

“A disguise that involved painting your eyes with khol?” inquired Dorgil, doubtful and curious at the same time. “Ah, I see, you disguised as a man from the desert-tribes. They also use this khol, in order to look dark and daunting.”

Faramir laughed again. “You are right about the desert-tribe. But not so much about the “man”.”

The healer frowned, looking puzzled. Faramir decided to enlighten him. “I disguised as a woman, Dorgil.”

Dorgil stopped short, staring at him, obviously lost for words. At length he shook his head. “It’s well I’m back to look after you,” he muttered as he moved on.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Tue 25 May , 2010 8:00 am 
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Location: snake-hunting
Mablung and Nargêl, the captain of Khorazîr’s household guard, had chosen the camp’s location wisely. It was situated on a wooded hillside overlooking the valley the aqueduct took its beginning in. The watercourse was fed by a narrow stream that had been partly dammed to create a small lake of clear water. From below, and even from the surrounding hills there was no indication of the temporary settlement: men, tents, horses, all were hidden in the dense underbrush. Not even a fire was discernable, a fact Faramir noticed with approval when together with the two captains he ascended the opposite slope in order to survey the countryside to the north and west, where Ihimbra was situated, and to exchange tidings.

It was evening, and the westering sun was setting the camp’s hillside aglow, gilding the pines, junipers and kermes-oaks, and very briefly glinting on a blade or hauberk of one of the soldiers ere the metal was covered again. The three men had climbed the narrow path winding up from the lake, accompanied by the scent of herbs and aromatic shrubs, small grasshoppers springing up at every step. Crickets were chirping in the sun-bleached grass, and many butterflies were about, and beetles glittering like coloured metal.

Next to a heap of rocks near the top of the hill the three men halted, and Mablung passed round a waterskin. The lower slope was already cast in shadow, but the stones were still illuminated by the sun. Chasing away some ants, Faramir leaned against the warm, craggy surface. He was weary and longed for sleep. Their journey to the camp had been slow because of Mezlâr’s condition and the fact they had to avoid the open roads. After Dorgil had tended the injured Southron as best he could under the circumstances, they had sent Dírhael ahead to announce their arrival, and to muster aid. But even with the additional helpers their progress through the rugged countryside had been arduously slow, and for Mezlâr increasingly painful. The Haradan had persevered with an enormous effort of will, had even insisted on walking when Dorgil had ordered the others to build a stretcher, yet Faramir feared that the journey had taken its toll on the proud Southron. Dorgil had looked grave and worried after his last visit to the now sleeping Haradan.

“He is as tough as old leather,” he had told an anxious Lôkhî, “yet I fear he has been overdoing it. Stupid Southron pride. Oh yes, he will live, never fear. But his recovery may take longer than what would otherwise have been the case, had he heeded my advice. And he may have done some lasting damage to that leg of his. Well, at least he seemed cheered by our reception in the camp.”

This reception had been so hearty and enthusiastic that Faramir, after having been embraced by most of his rangers and many of Khorazîr’s men, still felt his ribs ache. They had been welcomed like conquering heroes, with overwhelming warmth and genuine relief. Whatever young Dírhael had told the men, it had kindled their curiosity and raised expectations of a thrilling tale. Gladly, Faramir had yielded the task of recounting their recent adventure to Lôkhî, who had clearly relished the opportunity to exercise his considerable narrative skills. The Dúnadan hoped that by now, however, the small man had finally been allowed to retire and rest as well, after having been asked to repeat the tale for those returning from picket duty.

Like Lôkhî, Faramir had partaken of the meal prepared by men from the two companies, assisted by Hanîje and her children who had also relocated to this campsite. It had given him some brief respite, yet apart from that he had had no opportunity to rest. Even throughout the meal, Faramir had been accosted continually by a great number of men who wished to express their relief about his recovery, and who inquired about his wife and the current state of things. Touched by their sympathy, he understood their yearning for news and even tried to indulge them. Yet due to the fact he had not slept the previous night and very little the night before, and also because he had not yet had time to truly consider last night’s events, he found their questions, well-wishes and expressions of relief and wonder increasingly exhausting. So much, in fact, that eventually he had fled the bustle of the camp to this calmer place.

Feeling Mablung’s worried gaze upon him as he drew a deep breath, he turned to the captain, giving him a weary yet encouraging smile. He had noticed how at their arrival the ranger had restrained himself from rushing at his lord with the rest of the men. His face, however, had clearly betrayed his relief. Faramir knew of the other’s conscientiousness, and also the high regard he held his former captain in. “It’s good to have you back, sir,” Mablung had stated plainly, his voice awkward with suppressed emotion, and then he had chided some of the more boisterous rangers to “bloody keep your voices down, or else we might as well raise a banner to announce we’re here.”

“You should have rested first, captain,” the ranger now stated, somewhat reproachfully, “before coming up here. You look spent.”

“I am alright, Mablung, do not worry,” Faramir assured him, taking another sip from the waterskin. “Much has happened these past days, especially last night, and I fear my mind is still too occupied to let me rest properly.”

Captain Nargêl, a lean, clever-looking man with the brown skin and curly hair of the desert-tribes slightly shook his head, setting his golden earrings tinkling faintly. “I can hardly believe Lôkhî’s tale,” he said, giving Faramir a long measuring glance from his dark eyes. “You truly suffered to be dressed up like a woman, and in this guise met the Snake himself?”

Faramir smiled. “Indeed I did, although I would not call it ‘suffer’ – unless you refer to the tight bodice I had to wear. I daresay it was about the only disguise I could have worn for him not to recognise me, and therefore it served me well.”

“But your reputation, sir,” fell in Mablung indignantly. “The damage to it should it become known.”

“I will become known, rely on that, Mablung,” replied Faramir, amused by the other’s consternation on his behalf. “Lôkhî will see to that, and he is more than welcome to. I am not worried about my reputation, in fact, I am confident it will improve.”

“But, but a dress, lord? And a bodice and … padding …,” Mablung muttered, looking so distraught that Faramir laughed.

“I have it on good authority that the dress suited me very well, and that the padding looked quite … natural. Why should wearing a dress be more damaging to a man’s reputation than donning men’s guise to a woman’s? You all hold my wife in highest regard for what she achieved on the Pelennor, and you look up to Lady Narejde for her leadership and courage. They were forced to wear men’s clothes in order to be taken seriously by men. It should not be like this. Only last night I again encountered ample proof of the ladies’ strength and resolve – without them having to disguise. So do not worry about my reputation only because I wore a dress for a while. Rejoice, rather, about someone else’s reputation having suffered a severe blow.”

Nargêl’s dark face split into a wolfish grin. “Had he any notion of honour, the foul Snake would cast himself from his own battlements upon learning who he spoke to and did not recognise. What humiliation! There is no excuse for such stupidity.”

Mablung nodded vigorously, obviously having overcome his concern for his lord’s good name. “Unfortunately, he is a bloody coward. He would never end his life thus, I daresay.”

“Indeed he would not,” agreed Faramir. “I fear he will vent the anger about his humiliation on others. I only hope he is not going to choose Éowyn,” he added softly.

“Surely he will not harm her, sir,” said Mablung reassuringly. “He needs her. She is his only protection. She and the baby, of course. Oh captain, the lads and me, we were delighted by the news. Two thirds of the company say it’s bound to be a girl this time.”

Faramir smiled warmly, cheered by the ranger’s genuine joy. “Thank you, Mablung. How high are the stakes?” he asked.

Mablung blushed faintly, apparently recalling his superior’s view on gambling. But seeing Faramir’s smile, he shrugged, smiling as well. “Ah, there you must ask Edrahil as he is usually in charge of these things. Brandir even claimed it is going to be twin girls but I think he was rather alone with the assumption.”

“Éowyn did not hint at twins, so I fear Brandir may lose whatever he put in.” Faramir sighed softly. “I only hope the child – or children in case he is right – may be born in safety, far out of the Snake’s reach. And time is running out. She is so far along already, and so well protected.”

“But the lady is well, is she not?” asked Mablung. “Given the circumstances,” he added, seeing Faramir’s eyes narrow.

“She is fairly unhurt, if that is what you mean, but she has had to endure a spell in the dungeons. Her accommodation has improved by now, yet she is closely guarded. And she is afraid, Mablung, afraid of her unpredictably cruel captor. I have never seen her so frightened, she who stood her own against the Dark Lord’s most terrible servant. The Snake threatened to kill our baby and so forced her into revealing what information she had about me. I could see how this troubled her, although she did not really have a choice. I would rather have her save herself and the child instead of trying to cover me. But Mablung, who can tell what Al-Jahmîr will do should we truly lay siege to his castle?”

“He will try to save his own neck, the bloody coward,” hissed Nargêl contemptuously and spat. “He will try and run, like before.”

“And he may avenge himself upon his enemies first,” added Mablung quietly, not looking at his lord but voicing Faramir’s fears. “This is what you are concerned about, is it not, sir?” He raised his eyes to the other’s.

Faramir nodded faintly. “I know there must be a way of freeing her and the baby, but right now …,” he swallowed when the graveness of their plight in combination with his fatigue came over him like a heavy, suffocating blanket, “… right now I cannot see it. We had a narrow escape. Security is going to increase now that the fleet has arrived in Umbar. And the more her pregnancy advances, the less she will be able to move.”

His two companions exchanged a worried glance as he drew a deep breath, fighting down the despair welling up in him.

“You need to rest, captain,” said Mablung soothingly. “Things will look brighter after you have slept. It’s not like you to lose hope.”

But Faramir had barely listened to his words. “At least she has a friend now in that dreadful place,” he went on quietly. “But what indeed can Inzilbêth do, with a small child of her own to look after?” Feeling the others’ gazes upon him, he gave them an apologetic glance. “Forgive my dark mood,” he said, “I think I expected rather too much of our meeting last night. We were lucky to have met at all, so I should be grateful for that. But having to leave her to her predicament once more, not knowing if – when – we shall see each other again … But enough of that. Tell me what befell after we parted ways near Kadall.”

“Aye, sir, that we shall,” said Mablung, obviously relieved that his superior seemed to have recovered somewhat from the spell of despair. “And we have tidings that are bound to cheer you up somewhat, for it seems that Lord Khorazîr and his family have many friends and allies who are stout enemies of the Al-Jahmîrs, and who have rallied to our course. Several of the desert tribes are astir. Nargêl will be able to tell you more about them. It seems they have long waited for an opportunity to strike against the Snake. Also, we have heard reports from Umbar and beyond. There has been a constant coming and going of errand-riders and messengers. Poor Lord Aravôr hardly had time to recover from his injuries, and I daresay without the help of his valiant wife he would scarcely have managed to deal with all the preparations.”

“Khiblat Pharazôn is well defended now,” continued Nargêl. “So much so that several companies are on their way to Umbar even as we speak. Others are patrolling the lands, looking out for Marek’s troops. They will not be allowed to stray far from Ihimbra. We are also looking out for his messengers and informants, for the less he learns about our and our friends’ doings, the better.”

“Have there been many fights yet?” asked Faramir.

“Not yet. Only some smaller skirmishes at the borders, like usual. The bloodiest encounter has been the fight near Ihimbra, when we battled the Snake’s son and his men. But I daresay there are going to be more serious handstrokes soon,” Nargêl ended, with a fell and eager glint in his eyes.

“The lads cannot wait to pay back Al-Jahmîr for what he has done to you and Lady Éowyn, captain,” said Mablung. “Also, they want to avenge their fallen companions. But sir, you do not look pleased,” he observed, giving Faramir a surprised glance. “Do you not approve of the Snake’s men receiving their come-uppance?”

“My feud is not with Marek’s men, but himself,” said Faramir quietly. “Of course I rejoice in his plans being forestalled and his lines of information cut. But even so, I do not approve of unnecessary bloodshed.”

“I would not call it unnecessary,” fell in Nargêl.

“There may be times when battle cannot be avoided,” went on Faramir, “yet we must tread extremely cautiously lest we appear as aggressors in this country. We must only defend ourselves, and at all costs we must not risk open war.”

“Captain, do you really believe we shall manage without, at this stage?” asked Mablung doubtfully. “There are many who call for hard and swift retribution, and rightly so, I daresay. And you who have suffered the most wrong by the foul Umbarian, it surprises me that you should not be foremost into the fray, and cry for revenge the loudest. It is a war we can actually win, do you not think so?”

Faramir shook his head. “There are no winners in a war,” he returned. “The past ten years and more, ever since the fall of the Dark Lord, I spent trying to achieve peace with the Harad. Through diplomacy and much, much effort and time and strength invested in building up mutual respect, in overcoming prejudice and realising our dependence on the other – and indeed our similarities above our differences – finally something close to stability and prosperity had been acquired. If we break loose another war now, all this will have been for naught. Ten years of hard work and many a personal sacrifice, wasted. And for what? For an upstart like Al-Jahmîr? Nay, Mablung, he is not worth it, he is not worth a single arrow loosed, or a single blade unsheathed, and least of all a life lost. War and strife with Gondor is what he wants. Only some hours ago I heard him declare so, egging on his countrymen against us, against me. Therefore, we must not indulge him or play into his hands. I will not let a personal matter ruin many people’s lives.”

“But is this personal any longer?” asked Mablung. “Did he not also slant Gondor and Rohan by abducting our Lady?”

“Many think so, and it touches me that we should have so much support in the population,” replied Faramir gravely. “Still, it remains a personal insult foremost, and the more I consider the possible consequences, the more I am determined to keep it so.”

“But what does that mean?” asked Nargêl. “A personal, indeed an honourable way for settling the matter would be to challenge the Snake to a duel over the lady’s fate. But, alas, he has not got the tiniest spark of honour in him. He would never accept.”

“Nay, he would not,” agreed Faramir. “And even if he did, he would contrive ways of securing against her return to me, and of organising his escape in case he should lose. A duel would be no solution. I think the only way to beat him is not through battle or a display of personal bravery, but through cleverness and guile. He is vain, and arrogant, and overly confident. All three traits may offer ways for getting at him. His downfall must be wrought by himself. And he is becoming more and more anxious, for he knows that should we decide to strike, ‘twould be a blow so fell he is unlike to weather it. Ere long he is bound to make mistakes, entangle himself in his own web. We must wait for this.”

“Wait,” sighed Mablung. “That is going to be a sore test for us, and for you most of all, captain.”

Faramir gave him a wry smile. “I know, Mablung, and I do not look forward to it.”

They fell silent, each lost in thought. Nargêl looked grim as he gazed over to the campsite. Faramir knew the Southron had not been convinced by his words cautioning against war. He longed for it, and a part of Faramir could understand it. Mablung seemed tense and worried, stealing glances at his superior as if to try and read his thoughts.

Actually, Faramir thought, this was hardly necessary. He had just voiced his opinion and indeed his fears clearly and with a readiness that surprised him. He put it down to weariness and a general sense of defeat. So, all their efforts of the past week had sufficed to get them inside the castle and out again. Not a mean feat, true, but what had they really gained by it? He had experienced a few precious moments with Éowyn. Arguably those would have warranted even greater hardship. Yet, they had not managed to improve her predicament, perhaps even worsened it. They had not come one step closer to freeing her. Most likely some of his friends were in mortal danger still, hunted by the Snake’s men. And for what? Was he not being extremely selfish, risking the lives of so many just to win back his wife? Would it not be kinder, better for all involved to leave her where she was, housed in luxury, and return home, without causing any more bloodshed and the deaths of innocents? She would understand, would she not?

Absently he brushed an ant from his arm. With the small insects his troubling thoughts seemed to disappear as well. He was not being selfish. He was not the only one who longed for her return. Three little boys back in Gondor were missing her deeply, so were her brother and his family, and countless others. And could he really condemn her to a life at Ihimbra? Luxury she had there, true, but also the Snake’s company to endure. Having been Al-Jahmîr’s “guest” himself for several months, he knew of the possible unpleasantries this implied – to put things mildly. For Éowyn things were much worse. For the moment she might be fairly safe from the Snake’s malice, but who knew when he would tire of her, or when she might become too troublesome to keep?

“We expect a message from King Elessar any day now,” Mablung’s words interrupted Faramir’s thoughts. “And what about your companions, sir? Lord Khorazîr and his wife, and Master Azrahil and our lads?”

“I know naught about Khorazîr,” replied Faramir. “I hope he managed to flee the castle in time before the gates were shut. As for the others, I am confident they managed to get away, but they are bound to be hunted relentlessly. They are going to avoid leading their pursuers here, therefore I doubt we shall hear from them any time soon.”

“The lord and lady know these lands,” fell in Nargêl confidently. “They will not be caught.”

“What is your plan now, captain?” inquired Mablung.

“Sleep,” prompted Faramir with a wry smile, before turning serious again. “As for everything beyond that, I need to wait for tidings. I should like to meet with the King, yet we must survey the countryside closely ere we move on to Umbar. After the feast many people will be on the roads.”

“Indeed they will – in fact many are already –, and not just on the way to Umbar, but also northward, towards Ihimbra,” said Nargêl. “Our men have been watching a large company these past days, a stately retinue with many horses in colourful trappings, and camels, and even a small oliphaunt.”

“We do not know much more about these travellers,” added Mablung, “but they appear to be important. Some southern lord late for the party, perhaps.”

“Rumour has it it’s not a lord travelling, but a lady,” said Nargêl mysteriously, indicating he had snatched up more gossip and was relishing the opportunity to relate it to Faramir, who did not have to feign interest.

“So, what else does rumour say, Nargêl?” he inquired.

“Well, the best story our scouts picked up is that of the Snake’s wife journeying to Ihimbra to ‘set matters right there’, whatever that implies. I like this idea. If truly Lady Zoraîde is still alive, Al-Jahmîr is in for a nasty surprise. She won’t like how he treated their firstborn. She won’t like a great many things at Ihimbra. And she’ll be wanting to change them to her liking.”

Faramir nodded thoughtfully, recalling what Khorazîr and Narejde had mentioned about the mysterious Lady Zoraîde. “We must learn more about these travellers,” he said. “According to what I heard about her, I am not sure I want her as an ally, but every disturbance of the Snake’s plans can only benefit us.”

“We have men trailing the caravan,” confirmed Mablung. “In fact, little passes in these lands now we do not know about, except for Ihimbra proper. It’s difficult to get spies established there.”

“If all went well, we have people there as well now, even in the castle,” said Faramir. “But you have done excellent work, you two and all the men,” he went on, giving both a warm smile. “This is the first time I feel fairly safe ever since I left Gondor. And therefore I shall surrender the organisation of the night watches into your competent hands, and retire.”

Mablung laughed softly, looking pleased by the compliment. “Good,” he commented, “for, captain, had you not suggested just now to finally get some sleep, I would have called some strong lads to convey you down into camp. Good night.”

+

Faramir had expected sleep to evade him considering the events of the past days. However, it found him as soon as he had settled down on some blankets in a sheltered corner of the camp, before it was even fully dark. He woke at sunrise, when the camp was already astir. No tidings from his companions had arrived over night, although there were some reports from scouts about travellers setting out from Ihimbra by road and sea – most likely those of Al-Jahmîr’s guests who had been most unsettled about the arrival of the Gondorian fleet, or those not interested in any further cooperation with the Snake.

After breakfast, to ease his growing anxiety about the lack of news from Khorazîr and the others, Faramir began to write down the events of the past days in order to preserve what details he still remembered. Particular attention he devoted to drawing a new set of maps and floorplans, including the information they had obtained during their stay inside the castle. Lôkhî joined him, looking tense and ill at ease, obviously in need of distraction and thus glad to be called into service. Together they also visited Mezlâr who had recovered a little, but was still weak and weary. Dorgil forbid him to rise, and to everybody’s astonishment he did not even try to object, indicating that he was truly not feeling well. He only took some food and drink and returned to sleep.

Faramir, too, welcomed the opportunity to rest after the continuous strain of the previous days. He actually dozed off in the early afternoon, in the shade of a large, sweet-smelling juniper, lulled to sleep by the chirping of cicadas and the warmth of the rocks he was sitting on. He was woken by something prodding his legs. Opening his eyes reluctantly, he blinked in the sunlight, realising that he must have slept two hours at least and that the sun and thus the bush’s shade had wandered on.

“Ammê said you’ll get burnt, sleeping in the sun,” a high voice told him gravely. Once his eyes had become accustomed to the brightness, he recognised little Gimil. The boy was sitting on a large stone, the small bow in one hand and a toy arrow in the other.

Sitting up fully, Faramir gazed at his bare arms, feet and lower legs, which had indeed started to turn red. “Your ammê is quite right,” he said to the boy. “Thank you for waking me.” He stretched, still somewhat groggy, before gathering up the bag with his writing utensils and his boots and slowly rising to his feet.

“Can you fetch my other arrow?” asked Gimil, looking up at him. “It’s up in that tree.” He pointed into an old kermes-oak not far away.

“What did you try to hit up there?” the Dúnadan inquired as together they walked over to the oak.

“The nest,” said Gimil, pointing again. “But I missed it. Edrahil said if I can hit the nest, he will make a larger bow for me.”

“Actually, I think this bow is quite large enough for you,” Faramir told him with a smile, while at the same time feeling a deep sting in his heart. Longing for his own children surged into it with painful intensity. During the anxiety and excitement of the past days he had hardly thought of them. Now he felt guilty about this neglect and saddened by their absence. “And you must be careful where you shoot it. I hope Edrahil told you not to use it anywhere around people. You would not like to hit one of them, would you?”

Gimil shook his head. “Edrahil said he’ll take the bow away again if I shoot it near people. When will Pharzi come back?”

“The lion?” asked Faramir, surprised by the sudden change of topic. “I do not know.” Seeing Gimil’s disappointed expression, he added, “You like her, do you not?”

The boy nodded fervently, his eyes shining. “Very much. She is so wild. But when you stroke her, she is like a little kitten.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow. “You stroked her?”

Gimil, obviously noticing the change in Faramir’s voice, blushed and gazed up at the Dúnadan furtively. “You won’t tell ammê, will you?” he pleaded in a small voice. “She’ll be angry.”

“And rightly so,” the Dúnadan said sternly, kneeling down to be of equal height with the boy. “Gimil, Pharzi may seem nice and docile most of the time, but she is no kitten. She could tear you apart in an instant. You must not go near her, especially not alone.”

“But Azrahil goes near her all the time,” the boy objected.

Faramir sighed. “Yes, he does. But Pharzi knows him since she was a cub, and he knows her. But even for him, she might become dangerous one day. So please promise me not to approach her again.”

Gimli gazed at him, biting his lip. “Will you tell ammê?” he asked softly.

“If you promise, I will not.”

The boy thought for a moment, apparently weighing the advantages and disadvantages. “I promise. Can you get the arrow now? It’s up there?”

Faramir waited, gazing at him expectantly. Gimil looked puzzled for a moment, before adding, “Please.”

+

Retrieving the missile proved trickier than Faramir had anticipated. Since he could not reach it from below, not even by throwing stones at it, he had to climb into the tree and shake it loose from where the arrow stuck between the branches, showering little Gimil in dry leaves as he waited underneath. Together they returned to where Hanîje sat near the outskirts of the camp, combing her daughter’s hair and looking relieved when she spotted her son appearing together with Faramir, the latter still plucking twigs and leaves out of his hair and shirt.

“He got my arrow,” the boy declared proudly, waving the missile. Then spotting Edrahil with a group of rangers returning from picket duty, he darted off towards him, obviously to inform him about his attempts at hitting the nest.

Hanîje gave a small sigh. “I hope he did not bother you, lord,” she said apologetically.

Faramir smiled, settling on a rock and letting down his rolled-up sleeves and trouser-legs. “He saved me from sunburn.” Gazing up to watch the boy, he went on, “He seems to be feeling well amongst the men.”

She nodded. “Both children do. Everybody treats them kindly, and even plays with them whenever there is time. One of Lord Khorazîr’s men made little wooden animals for Zîraphel, and another gave her and Gimil small clay flutes that hoot like owls. And your rangers won Gimil’s heart by making him a bow and arrows, and by teaching him some words of the Common Speech and that strange language they sometimes use amongst themselves.”

“I wonder what kind of words,” muttered Faramir to himself, but upon her questioning glance, he asked, “You mean Sindarin, the Elvish tongue?”

She shrugged. “It sounds beautiful, almost like singing, so yes, perhaps it is Elvish. I would not know. But I am pleased that the children should know many different tongues. How is it with your children? Do they learn your wife’s language, too?”

He nodded. “They are still very small, the twins just beginning to talk at all, but we take care to talk to them both in Sindarin and Rohirric, and in the Common Speech. In the past months they are bound to have picked up quite a lot of Rohirric, actually, as they have been staying with my wife’s kin.” He drew a deep breath, recalling Elboron’s vivid account of his and his brothers’ adventures in Edoras. Hanîje gave him a sympathetic glance before resuming her combing.

“The men seem delighted by the little ones, too,” she observed after a moment’s silence during which both had been watching Gimli getting instructed about how to string and unstring his bow properly by Edrahil. “It is touching to behold them, so warlike and dangerous as they look, yet with the children they are kind and cautious.”

“Many have families of their own, who in my rangers’ case they have not seen for several months,” explained Faramir. “Your children remind them of home. They remind me,” he admitted softly.

“The soldiers make me think of my husband,” said Hanîje quietly, and a shadow of grief passed over her face. “Of how he was before all the trouble started with the Snake.” She sighed again. “It seems a long time ago now.” Bending down, she kissed little Zîraphel’s hair. The girl had fallen asleep in her lap.

To lighten both her troubled mood and distract himself from his own homesickness and longing for his family, Faramir said, “I have not told you that you have gained an avid admirer of your dressmaking skills, have I?” She shook her head, looking surprised. He smiled. “Lady Inzilbêth was very taken with the gown you made for the fortune teller.”

Hanîje looked touched and pleased. “She was?

“She asked me about it twice. I could not mention your name, but I shall, once all this is over.

“Thank you, lord,” she said. “Once all this is over …” she then repeated quietly.

“Have you considered whither to go?” asked Faramir. “With the companies about you are as well protected as possible under the circumstances, nevertheless we may need to relocate repeatedly, and may even be involved in skirmishes or worse. I have no doubt that you would mind neither these inconveniences nor the danger, but ‘tis another matter with the children. Might it not be wise to move to Umbar, to there take refuge with the King’s people?”

“I have thought about it, yes. And it may seem prudent, were it not for the dangerous journey and the fact that I do not like the City. I have distant relatives there, and there is also my husband’s kin, but they hate your people, and I do not know where their current loyalties lie with regards to the Snake. I would not feel safe there, and would not gladly bestow my children into their care. And would your King take us in? I do not wish to be a bother.”

“You would be very welcome,” Faramir assured her, “and all but a bother. But it seems to me you have already made up your mind.”

She gave a slight nod. “Do not think me careless or selfish, lord, but I feel I can be of more use here. And the children are happy, and well looked after. Down in Umbar, I would only sit about and fret and feel my grief more strongly. Here, there is much work to do, not just cooking and darning garments for the men. I have been helping to fletch arrows and mend chainmail these past days, and make new strings for your rangers’ longbows. I wish to play a part in the downfall of the man who has robbed me of my beloved, and our children of their father.”

“You do not have to justify your decision,” Faramir told her gently. “I understand you perfectly.”

“Will you leave for Umbar, to meet the King?” she inquired.

“I await his message. It may be wise to leave the vicinity of Ihimbra for a short while, until things there have calmed down a little.”

“Will they calm down?”

He shrugged. “I do not expect any serious confrontations soon. Al-Jahmîr needs to gather information about his enemies’ strength and purpose first, and he has to sort out his allies, determine who is going to support him in what way and to what extend. That is going to take time, which we shall use in much the same manner. He is going to be all but pleased when he learns he actually spoke with me during the feast, and is going to hunt for me even more relentlessly. For this reason, I think I shall indeed journey to Umbar.”

“Surely the journey is going to be dangerous,” she observed.

“Certainly. I do not believe my presence in the city will remain unnoticed. But perhaps ‘tis advantageous to draw his attention thither, and thus away from his own surroundings, to give those close by a better chance of working against him in secrecy. I shall act as a bait, for undoubtedly he will attempt to strike at me, now even more than before, after the blow we dealt his reputation.”

She gave him a long glance. “It is said he has many spies and assassins in Umbar,” she stated quietly.

“There and elsewhere. There is no safe place for me in these lands – nor indeed for anybody on my side. But so far the Snake has failed miserably at killing me, and I shall endeavour to keep it that way.”

She nodded slightly, obviously worried and not entirely sharing the confidence he displayed. “You should put some ointment from the vera-plant on your arms and legs,” she then said, “to cool your skin should it trouble you.”

“’Tis not too bad, just a little tense,” replied Faramir, rolling up his sleeves and examining the traces of his extended involuntary sun-bath. After this spell in the shade the redness had receded somewhat. “Yet I thank you for your advice.”

“Several of your rangers have come with more severe burns. You Northerners cannot take much of our southern sun, it seems.”

“Yes, we are hardly accustomed to it, despite our country being warm and sunny enough in summer.” He changed topic since a thought had struck him at her words. “I hope the men have not been bothering you, for ointments and else. In general the rangers are a fairly disciplined company, thanks to Mablung and a number of level-headed men who hold them in check, yet they have been away from home for a long time, and, well, since you know a bit about soldiers you can imagine what they might be like around women, when they have not seen their own for a while.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I heard several had sweethearts at Lord Khorazîr’s place, so they would not be as … wild as they might otherwise. I have no complaints about their conduct. They have always treated me with perfect courtesy and even kept certain remarks or stares to a minimum. Do not worry about me, lord. Should they become too boisterous, I shall make sure to remind them of propriety. And now please excuse me. I shall bring this little one to bed.”

+++

Despite his nap in the afternoon Faramir fell asleep quite early at night, having been excused from picket duty despite his insistence to take his share. He was roused again by Mablung, about three hours past midnight. “Messengers from Umbar have arrived, sir,” the ranger told him as he sat up in alarm, at once wide awake. “Also, we have word from Ihimbra.”

“Has Khorazîr returned?” asked Faramir quickly as he rose and dressed.

“Nay, not him. But one of Lady Narejde’s spies from town contacted the lads that lie close and reported that your friend joined those responsible for the distraction. They split up and are on the run, closely pursued by the Snake’s men. Lord Khorazîr and Lady Narejde are leading their pursuit away from the location of our camp. As far as we know some received injuries when they staged the distraction, but nothing serious. Nargêl and I have put together a company that is about to set out and come to their aid. I hope you approve.”

“I do. I was about to suggest the very thing. Good work, Mablung. Who are the messengers from Umbar?” Faramir inquired as he followed Mablung out of the tent he had slept in towards the centre of the camp. There was no fire, nevertheless Faramir could make out several dark shapes standing in the small clearing around which the camp had been erected. Horses could be heard snorting and fidgeting, as if they had been ridden sharply. “I hope you made sure of their identity.”

Mablung’s teeth showed in the darkness as he smiled. “Most certainly, lord. There was no mistaking them.”

As they approached, one of the shapes stepped forward. Faramir heard the tinkle of chain-mail and the creak of leather, and a swish of cloth as the man reached up to lower the hood of the wide burnous he was wearing over his armour. Even in the dim starlight his hair showed to be of lighter hue than that of the rangers, causing Faramir to laugh softly in surprise and joy.

“Should I be prepared to ward off another blow?” he asked in Rohirric when the other had almost reached him.

“That depends on your tidings, I reckon,” came the reply, followed by a laugh, a quick step forward and a hearty hug. “Good to see you alive and unhurt, brother,” stated Éomer as he released Faramir again. “Is it true you met Éowyn? Where and when? How has she fared? Tell, tell, leave out nothing!”

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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It took Faramir what remained of the night to inform Éomer about what had chanced ever since the Dúnadan’s return to the Harad. The many questions Faramir wanted to ask his brother-in-law he was forced to retain for later, so eager was the Rohir for every scrap of news of his sister. They had withdrawn into one of the tents, accompanied by Mablung and Wulfstan, Éomer’s captain of guard. While the Dúnadan spoke, the King of Rohan paced the narrow space agitatedly, more than once almost upsetting the small lamp hanging from one of the poles. Now and again he stopped and stared at Faramir in alarm or relief, to then resume his restless movements. He made few comments, but his gestures and expressions told Faramir about his state of mind. Finally, when the account drew to an end, the Rohir flopped down onto a folded cloak that served as a pillow and ran both his hands through his long hair.

“It seems we have arrived none too soon,” he commented at last, after taking a sip from his cup of wine, untouched ever since Faramir had begun speaking, “although it seems like at the moment there is little we can actually do.” He let out a long breath, staring into his cup gloomily.

“Indeed,” agreed Faramir. “And let me repeat your sister’s warning to you –”

Éomer waved a hand. “No need. I do not intend to storm the castle today.”

“You wait until tomorrow, then?” inquired Faramir with a slight smile, which was returned by his brother-in-law, a brief, all too short lightening of his tense and worried expression.

“Perhaps I shall even wait yet another day,” he replied, before he turned grave again. “I first need to think through all your tidings. A great number of things are still unclear to me.”

“Some matters are not clear to me, either,” admitted Faramir. “And I have questions for you as well, which perhaps we should venture into over breakfast. The camp is already astir, and you must be both hungry and weary after your speedy journey.”

“Hungry, yes, but weary, nay,” Éomer stated boldly, rising again. “I am still too brought up by your account to desire rest. But I should like to look after the horses. We demanded a lot of them during the past days, and that so soon after the sea-voyage.”

“How did that go, then?” asked Faramir as they excited the tent into the surprisingly cool morning air. The sun had not yet risen over the eastern slopes, but the sky had already taken on a rosy hue, and the sounds of nightly insects mingled with the chirping and warbling of birds. The day promised to turn hot again, yet thankfully the nights were cold enough to allow restful sleep – at least to those whose hearts were untroubled. Men were busy preparing food or fetching water from the stream, while others were getting ready for picket duty.

“Much better than I thought,” replied Éomer. “We rode down to Pelargir where the fleet was waiting. I had harboured some anxiety about how the horses would take being loaded onto ships, yet they suffered it fairly well. Actually, some of the men I’m ashamed to admit made far more fuss than they. Many of them had never seen the big ships before and were in awe of them. In fact, many of them had never seen the sea before, and were already impressed by the Great River as it passes Pelagir. However, once they were on board our journey was quick and surprisingly easy. Once we got used to this constant motion, at least.”

“So you found your sea-legs at last?”

Éomer grinned faintly. “How could I not have borne the voyage, with Imrahil always present to tease me? He sends greetings, by the way, he and Elessar. Both would have come themselves, actually intended to, but there appears to have arisen a certain matter in Umbar that required their immediate attention.”

“That does not sound well,” remarked Faramir concernedly. “What matter?”

Éomer shrugged. “I only heard little. I only spent one night in Umbar as I was anxious to set out, therefore I cannot tell you much. But it seems your governor is the problem.”

“Beretar?”

Éomer nodded. “I met him briefly, ere I left again, but he appeared to me a very fearful man, worn out by the many troubles his subjects have caused him recently.”

“Well, I would be careful with terming the Umbarians his or Gondor’s subjects,” cautioned Faramir. “They do not consider themselves thus, never have, and never will – which may be part of Beretar’s problem. His life and that of his family have been severely threatened in the past, and with neighbours like Al-Jahmîr and many of his supporters, I think there is no blaming him for developing a certain fearfulness.”

“True, even though others, like your friend Khorazîr, are not afraid. And according to what I heard – which, mind you, is only what I managed to snatch up during my brief stay at his place, Beretar’s real problems lie elsewhere. Apparently his dealings with Gondor have been all but straightforward for some time. One could speak of deceit, even treason.”

Faramir’s eyes narrowed. “You mean he has switched sides?”

Éomer shook his head. “He does not seem to have had the guts for that, but it looks like he has abused his position for personal gain. He chose a side all of his own, one could say. Nothing is proven yet,” he added quickly, seeing Faramir’s expression, “but there are certain signs. Apparently Aragorn has suspected something along the lines for quite some time. If you ask me, this was part of his reason for journeying to Umbar himself. Imhrahil volunteered to investigate, and I daresay he’s the right man for the task.”

Faramir let out a long breath, feeling anger stir in him. “Just what we need now,” he said forcefully, more sharply than intended. “The very moment Gondor’s presence in these lands and indeed our integrity are highly sensitive, even questionable issues, it turns out that our governor is corrupt and has been deceiving the Umbarians for years. Al-Jahmîr claimed just that in his speech, and now it looks he is proven right. When this becomes known, he is bound to win supporters. And there are many of those in Umbar who would have nothing rather than the Gondorians leave for good. Even though we usually pride ourselves on upholding certain values, condemning the ‘barbarous’ Southrons for their greed, this again proves that actually there is no difference. Bloody opportunists!”

“Perhaps Al-Jahmîr played his part in corrupting the governor,” Éomer suggested, giving his brother-in-law a wary gaze, obviously surprised and alarmed by his fierce mood. “Do you know this Beretar?”

Faramir nodded a greeting towards the guard watching the horses, trying to control his dismay over the other’s tidings. They had reached a little grove of pines and kermes-oaks where the horses were kept. Faramir had felt a tinge of sadness that Mablung and Khorazîr’s men had not brought Narâk and Éowyn’s horse with them, despite knowing they were more safely bestowed at Khorazîr’s place. Still, he would have welcomed having his own horse around, if only because it reminded him of home.

The lately arrived steeds were being seen to by two of Éomer’s riders, men of his household guard. They were busy cleaning bridles, and greeted their King and his companion joyfully. Éomer’s large dark-grey stallion Isenfel snorted as he patted his neck and picked some twigs out of the braided mane. Faramir also stepped over to the horses. He noted that while some were unmistakably steeds of the Riddermark: large-framed and strong yet agile, there were others among them of a different breed, slighter in build and with manes and tails less full, their features sharper with large eyes and small, pointy ears. He recognised them as horses of the South. Apparently some steeds had been acquired in Umbar upon the fleet’s arrival.

“I met him a few times in Gondor ere he took on the position in Umbar,” Faramir replied to Éomer’s question, rubbing Isenfel’s nose when it set out to explore the wide sleeve of his burnous, “and once during the peace-negotiations I undertook in the South, not long after the War. He is of my brother’s age, from a wealthy family in Dor-en-Ernil. Imrahil knows him better, so ‘tis well he should investigate. Beretar spent some time in the navy and thus had dealings with Umbar and the Harad. He is well versed in the languages of this region, and even married an Umbarian woman after he had settled down here. When he was made governor there were rumours that it was in truth a punishment for some misbehaviour in Gondor, yet I believe he actually wanted the post – which, in fact, nobody else did at the time. It provided good opportunities to establish independence and earn profits away from the King’s direct control, but even for those interested in these things the post had little appeal because of the unaccountable political state of Umbar. Beretar never displayed such ambitions openly, yet it is possible he fooled us all. One must at least commend him for his foresight. It seems he managed to reap what profits there were from his position.”

Éomer shook his head, bending down to check his horse‘s shoes for stones. “Bloody politicians,” he muttered. “No wonder you dislike council meetings. Your moot is like an adder’s nest, and it is hard to say which serpent has the vilest poison.” Straightening up again, he leaned against the stallion’s side. “But actually one adder seems to have lost some of his bite. Your special friend Falastur behaved himself surprisingly well after you left. Still, I daresay now that Aragorn is gone, too, Túrin is going to have a hard time with this one, despite the Queen promising to keep him in check and slap his hands now and again. Oh, I am to send you heartiest greetings.”

“From Falastur?”

Éomer laughed. “Alas, no. That would have been something, eh? From Túrin and Visilya and little Vorondil, of course. And from Lóthiriel and Elfwine. Queen Arwen’s words Aragorn will forward to you when you meet him.”

Faramir felt a stab in his chest. “Anybody else?” he asked softly.

Éomer smiled as he bent down to his saddle, lying open to dry, and retrieved something from his saddle-bags. “I was wondering when you would ask,” he stated gently. “I had to promise to deliver it in person.”

With hands slightly shaking despite his effort to keep them still, Faramir received a sealed parcel wrapped in sailcloth. He opened it carefully, to find several brightly painted sheets of paper, a pressed and dried honeysuckle, the rather crumply remains of a small cake in an extra bag of cloth, and, to his great surprise, Elboron’s horse-doll. For a while he simply stared at the items as they lay on their wrappings in his hands, too touched to speak.

Éomer stepped to him and slipped an arm round his shoulders. “They insisted on including the cake,” he explained with a warm smile. “Obviously they do not trust the fare you get down here. And Elboron was adamant in sending Horsey. We did not quite understand what he tried to explain, I admit. I think it is meant to keep you company – you, and Éowyn. The flower is for her, and half the cake,” he ended quietly.

“I shall keep them safe for our next meeting,” said Faramir gravely, his throat tight as his heart ached with longing to see his sons’ faces and hear their voices. Éomer nodded, squeezing his shoulder before stepping back again so that Faramir could spread the wrappings on the ground and pick up the drawings to gaze at. They were similar to the ones he had taken with him from Gondor and obviously recounted the children’s adventures after his departure. But as he perused them, he felt Éomer’s intent gaze upon him, and looked up.

“Will you meet again?” asked the Rohir, his voice soft and full of anxiety, without its usual confidence. “It’s what we all hope and fight for, but Faramir, tell me frankly, what hope is there?”

Carefully, Faramir began to wrap up his sons’ gifts again. He had expected a direct question of the kind ever since Éomer’s arrival. Unfortunately, he had yet to find an answer.
“I cannot gaze into the future, Éomer,” he said, straightening up again and glancing at his brother-in-law. “Freeing her is going to be extremely difficult – and yet not impossible. And as long as she is alive, I shall not forgo hope, and shall fight for her release.”

“Even at the risk of your own life.”

A simple statement, not a question, Faramir noted. “Aye,” he replied quietly, “although these gifts remind me that in fact I am no longer to decide whether to take this risk. I promised the boys to return.” He sighed as he gazed at the Rohir. “I feel torn in two, Éomer,” he confessed.

“I know. And we cannot help you there. But rest assured that we will do all we can to free her, and if you feel you must return to Gondor to look after the little ones, we shall stand fast here and fight the Snake.”

“I have no doubt about that. And yet, I would feel like deserting her. And at the same time I am neglecting our sons, now that I should be with them more than ever. How did they take my departure?”

“Elboron was very quiet the following days and hardly spent time at play, but sat looking out of the window. Meriadoc talked and talked, babbling like a stream in spring after the snow has melted. We understood very little, but think he asked for you and Éowyn. Yet he was the first to resume play again. Peregrin wept a lot, and spent most of the time at Elboron’s side. But do not worry,” he added quickly, seeing Faramir’s expression. “Especially Túrin and Visilya kept them occupied, and after they had taken them to see the talking bird at Túrin’s aunt’s in the fifth circle at least the twins had forgotten their grief. They drew it … let me see …”

He bent down and opened the parcel again, retrieving one of the drawings and handing it to Faramir. “There I think it is.” He frowned. “Perhaps you ought to turn it round? At least the colours are fairly accurate. Elboron was also excited about it, but I would be lying if I told you he does not miss his parents, and worry about you. He has not forgotten what happened last year.”

“How could he?” said Faramir softly, gazing at the colourful shape on the paper that might indeed resemble a parrot. “But then at least things turned out well.” He sighed. “Let us have some breakfast, and tell me more about the little ones, and what else passed in Gondor.”

“Food sounds splendid. As for tidings, I actually have more mail for you. You will be delighted by this, I daresay.” He withdrew a letter and handed it to Faramir with a decidedly mischievous grin. One glance at the seal indicated the source of the Rohir’s vicious delight.

“From Falastur?”

“Apparently he does send greetings after all. Nice of him, isn’t it? Do open it. I’m extremely curious why he of all people should write to you. Must be a matter of great importance.”

Faramir felt less curiosity than a sense of foreboding when carefully he broke the seal and unfolded the letter. He thought he knew why the Lord of Pelargir should write to him, and as his eyes flew over the neat, sparingly accurate handwriting, he found his suspicions confirmed. He let out a soft sigh, shaking his head.

“What does he want?” inquired Éomer, stepping round to read over Faramir’s shoulder.

“Money, what else,” replied the Dúnadan. “He just writes to remind me that he is going to charge me with all costs that arose out of the fact that one of his frigates had to accompany the corsair-ship that brought me up Anduin. Also, there is a long passage about certain lands in the Ethir Anduin which have been a matter of discussion between Pelargir and Ithilien for generations. How thoughtful of him to bring it up now, when I can do so much about it.”

“Didn’t he himself travel on the frigate?”

“Indeed he did.”

Éomer shook his head. “I wonder why Aragorn does not simply throw him out of council for good. The man is naught but a nuisance. How ridiculous that he should bother you with these petty matters when you have clearly other things on your mind.”

“Well, this is Falastur, I fear. He likes things being done ‘properly’. Most likely he is doing his accounts right now, and thus needs certain financial issues settled for their completion. You are right, he is a nuisance, but a useful one, from time to time.”

“That almost sounds like you defending him,” the Rohir stated incredulously. “You of all people! Has he not bullied you ever since to were made Steward?”

Faramir smiled wryly. “He started long before that. But yes, in a way I did defend him. I like Falastur little more than he likes me, but he does have his qualities. I know of nobody who has such an intricate knowledge of Gondorian tax-laws (and all its nooks and corners) and who keeps his accounts with such perfection. I think he actually enjoys dealing with such matters, which the rest of us considers a necessary evil. And if ever you need someone to voice injustice, or some matter dealt with unlawfully, you can count on Falastur to do so. He is not afraid of making himself unpopular with his opinions.”

“And he definitely succeeds at it. I would not have the patience to deal with him. Ah, but there are other, more pleasant messages, too. Your man Beregond from Ithilien sends this.” He placed another large parcel in Faramir’s hands. “He met us in Pelargir before we took ship, and even though Aragorn wanted to discourage him from sending this on to you, Imrahil and I thought you might actually appreciate some work to take your mind off things here.”

Faramir gave him a questioning glance. “Accounts, papers that need the Prince’s signature, perhaps even some tax-matters if you are lucky,” explained the Rohir with a faint grin. “And a long report about what passed in Ithilien ever since your departure.” His grin faded as he gazed at the parcel thoughtfully. “I hate to imagine what awaits me when I return to the Mark. Although we have far less paperwork there, I do not doubt I am going to spend days listening to what those I left in charge have to report.”

“Is Elfhelm acting as your steward?” asked Faramir, weighing the parcel in his hands. He felt divided in mind about its contents. On the one hand he was glad Beregond had sent them on. He knew that his lord wished to keep informed and moreover might need something to distract himself with. On the other hand Faramir was certain that once he started immersing himself in paperwork, he would find many things that required more than a written message forwarded to Beregond, matters that would need the Prince of Ithilien’s personal interference. Not being able to deal with them accordingly would only increase the sense of having abandoned his duties for a personal issue, and thus weigh on his conscience.

The King of Rohan nodded. “I do not expect him to face any problems. There has not been trouble at the borders for some time. The Dunlendings have been quiet and peaceful these past years, and there are few internal quarrels – though I heard not all were happy about this expedition.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow. “How so, when you set out to rescue their King’s sister, who I hope is still beloved by her people?”

“So she is, very much, although there are some who begin to wonder if she had not better stayed in her own realm instead of facing constant danger because she married a lord of Gondor and inherited his problems with the Southrons.” He frowned. “The last time I heard talk of this kind I thought it a jest, but the sentiment appears to be genuine.”

Then his mood lightened, and he smiled faintly as he gazed at his brother-in-law. “Luckily, only very few seem to think so, the rest is convinced that there could not have been a better match. I count myself amongst these – and not for the obvious political reasons. I know she loves you deeply, and you her, and that’s enough for me.”

He sighed, gazing up towards the western ridge. “It’s not far to the castle from here, is it?” he asked. “Is it possible to see from up there? I should very much like to take a look, and see if it’s indeed as strong and impenetrable as it’s made out to be.”

“I fear I must disappoint you. There are several hills in between. But I am certain Mablung and the rangers will be glad to take you on a little expedition to see the castle.”

+

“In the Mark we welcome summer and sunshine,” remarked Éomer over breakfast, which they took on some large rocks on the slope overlooking the campsite in the shade of a wild fig-tree. “But this infernal heat down here can be a real bother. I did not expect it to be that severe. During our journey from Umbar more than one of my men burned his skin on the rings of his mail-shirt because he forgot to cover it.”

The Rohir had shed his burnous, hauberk and padded tunic and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt because it was already starting to turn warm. Faramir noticed how the other’s arms had taken on some colour during the sea-voyage, as had his features.

“Yes, you should have a care with the sun and cover your skin whenever you can,” he remarked, indicating the other’s arms. “The light, loose-fitting garments they wear around here are best suited to keep fairly cool. I almost got burned yesterday because I fell asleep in the sun, and usually we tarks are less sensitive to sunburn than you strawheads.”

Éomer laughed softly as he gazed at the other thoughtfully. “You hardly look like a tark anymore, but more like one of the local people. And I do not mean your attire only. You have acquired quite a tan for a pale-skinned tark, and what is more you even talk with a slight accent when you use the Common Speech, just like the Southrons.”

“I do? I did not notice.”

“Except for your eyes, you blend in very well with folks here. No wonder they did not recognise you in the castle. Not even the Snake himself.” He shook his head. “I still can hardly believe it: twice you meet him face to face, twice he doesn’t recognise you. This man must be a complete fool.”

“He is no fool, Éomer. Never make the mistake of underestimating him. I must confess I have, and now I am paying the price. Each time we met, I wore a good disguise and did not look like myself. The first time I was dressed like a poor villager, with false hair and darkened skin, and the second time my features were veiled, and I wore a dress. Moreover, at neither occasion he expected to see me. The first time he believed me dead, the second he thought I was outside the castle trying to get in. His perception may be poor when it comes to recognising people’s faces, but a fool he is not.”

Éomer lowered the fig he had been about to take a bite from. “Wait a moment, what was this about the dress? You said you disguised as a fortune-teller.”

Faramir nodded. In his account, he had withheld the finer details of his disguise. “So I did. A female one. Hanîje, the soldier’s wife I mentioned used to be a tailor’s assistant. She made it for me, and made it very well. So well, in fact, that almost everybody believed I was a woman indeed. I also had to practise walking and talking like one, and managed with Narejde’s help. About the only one who recognised me was Éowyn.”

Éomer’s eyes grew wide. “She saw you in that … attire?”

“Yes. ‘tis yet another reason for us to free her quickly, so that she can tease me about it for the rest of our days.”

“I do look forward to that.” Éomer shook his head, still in obvious wonder and disbelieve, then suddenly he laughed. “I guess it’s well we look after your boys now, for what should they end up looking like in terms of clothing, with a mother who dresses like a man and rides to war, and a father who dons a dress and pretends to be a woman? But tell me,” he went on, turning serious again, “what are your plans now? Will you stay here, or journey to Umbar?”

“I shall ride to Umbar. I need to talk to Elessar. And I shall leave soon, tonight if possible.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I stay here. I would accompany you on the road, but honestly I do not see what good I could possibly work in the city. I think I am of more use here.”

“Yes, so do I. I know you are eager to get closer to the castle and perhaps even harry a few of the Snake’s henchmen in the forest. I would not keep you from that. Also, I think ‘tis well you should be here, and also that your presence becomes known to Al-Jahmîr – as soon it will. It will give him something new to worry about. You have quite a fierce reputation in these parts. Few of those who fought on the Pelennor and returned to tell about it have forgotten the charge of the Rohirrim and your fierce valour in battle.”

Éomer smiled, his grey eyes glinting dangerously. “Oh yes, I will make sure the Snake learns of my arrival here, and my intentions concerning him, the bloody coward.”

“Still, be careful. Remember that for every stroke we deal him, he may avenge himself cruelly upon Éowyn and our baby. He has threatened her severely before. I have never seen her so frightened, Éomer, and it tore at my heart having to leave her in that dreadful place.”

Éomer cast down his eyes, nodding, his fell mood changed again. “I will do nothing to endanger her. And I have seen her frightened before,” he added, raising his eyes to Faramir’s. “When you were gone last year, and especially when there came no more letters. And I don’t want to imagine what she went through when she woke in that castle and believed you slain. Honestly, Faramir, I think her greatest fear is not for herself or even your baby, but for you. So do look after yourself on your journey, and send word as soon as you are safely off the road. You know, if it were up to me, I would put you on a ship and send you straight back to Gondor to keep you out of harm’s way.”

Faramir smiled fainly. “Out of harm’s way, having to discuss financial matters with Falastur?”

The King of Rohan laughed. “You are right. How could I forget? Surely you are much safer here, where there is a price on your head large enough to outfit an entire éored.”

“Ah, then it has risen again,” stated Faramir dryly. “Actually, not even Al-Jahmîr could possibly afford to pay it just so, and I am certain people know it. Moreover, by now it has transpired that I am rather difficult to catch and kill, so most do not feel like the effort is worth the gain.”

“Yes, you seem to have more lives than a cat. Still, I do not wish to see you run out.” He gave his brother-in-law a long, grave glance. “Promise me to take no further risks, Faramir,” he said softly, but with great intensity. “I do not wish to tell Éowyn when we free her that you were slain during her rescue.”

“You shall not have to, I promise,” replied Faramir gravely, clasping his hand and squeezing it reassuringly. Then he looked up as a shadow fell on their picnic-site: Nargêl had arrived, accompanied by Lôkhî. “Good morning, lords,” he greeted them, nodding his head to both. “I thought you might be interested in what the scouts picked up during the night.”

+

Nargêl’s account contained little information about how Khorazîr and his companions were faring, only that apparently they had been engaged in another skirmish with Al-Jahmîr’s men, but had mastered it and escaped fairly unscathed. Many of the party-guests were on their way home on the Umbar-Road.

“Many of those who might otherwise have taken a ship to the south have switched to the roads instead,” reported Nargêl, “to avoid entanglement with the Gondorian fleet. Two frigates of yours have been sighted near Ihimbra, obviously out on scouting missions. The town itself is filling with soldiers and sailors for the Snake’s warships, but it looks rather like a show of strength than an actual attempt at a stroke against the Northerners. Marek would be stupid to attack. He has a few good ships, but hardly enough to seriously bother your King’s fleet. Our spies said it appears he simply wishes to impress his potential allies.”

“Are there news about that strange company of travellers you mentioned yesterday?” inquired Faramir.

“Not much. They must have arrived at the castle by now. But it is highly probable that they are indeed Lady Zoraîde and her retinue. We are eagerly waiting for tidings from the castle proper to be sure.”

“Has there been no word from the castle yet?” asked Éomer. “I thought you had established people in there.”

“So we have,” fell in Lôkhî. “But it seems that security has been very tight right after the feast because of what we and Lady Narejde and her companions did.”

“Still, I wonder that so little rumour got out,” mused Faramir, “with all the guests and their servants and guards leaving. Has anybody tried to contact this Al-Asad who promised his aid?”

“You mean the one interested in our horses?” asked Éomer. In accord with Faramir’s expectations, he had reacted to the desert-lord’s suggestions with great suspicion.

“Yes, we tried,” said Lôkhî, “but without success. It looks like he left the feast shortly after he accosted you and vanished. Our people have not been able to track him down since.” He shrugged and sighed. “It looks we must wait until it is safe for Zubejde and Dirar to send word. They have the best position inside the castle, and if anybody has picked up information about what the Snake is up to, and more importantly how the Lady is faring, it must be them.”

Éomer gave him a long hard glance. “I cannot tell you how it riles me having to sit here waiting for news, even though it looks like there is little else we can do. What is the plan for today, anyway?”

“I shall prepare for my journey,” said Faramir. “Even without the amount of traffic you described I would not have taken the Umbar-road. I must have another look at the maps and speak with those who know the countryside well about alternative routes. Also, we must decide who is to accompany me. It should not be a great company. Half a dozen men should be more than sufficient.”

“I shall come – if you will have me,” said Lôkhî immediately.

Faramir gave him a smile. “I had hoped you would want to come. I am sure Mezlâr would volunteer as well, but he is not fit to ride yet with this leg of his.”

“We shall have to tie him down to prevent him from coming along,” muttered Lôkhî. “I will ask round for men who know these parts. Some of your own lads might want to come as well.”

“Mablung would, I am certain,” said Faramir, “yet as captain he should stay here. Dorgil also must stay. His injury is not quite mended, and also I fear he will have plenty of work again ere long.

“I should like to take a look at that castle,” stated Éomer.

“I was about to send out another scouting party,” said Nargêl. “You are very welcome to join us, sir, although I fear we will have to set out on foot. Unless you take the roads, the countryside is too rough for horses.”

“Our steeds need to rest anyway,” said Éomer. “Have you got any spare garments? I think it would be better for my men and myself to dress up in the local fashion. Otherwise I fear we will melt in this heat.”

Lôkhî nodded. “That can be arranged, lord. Should there not be enough, I am sure Hanîje could make some more. We still have some bales of cloth left.” Glancing at Faramir, “ we also have to find something for you, something to render you inconspicuous on the journey to Umbar,” he said.

“Inconspicuous is fine,” fell in Éomer, “yet it would greatly ease me to know you were wearing something more protective than a tunic and flabby burnous. Take my hauberk. I will not need it when creeping through the underbrush, and I doubt they have any mail-shirts here your size.”

Not relishing the prospect of donning a heavy hauberk and the required padded underclothing, yet knowing he would not manage to dissuade Éomer, Faramir thanked him.

“I expect you to return it undamaged,” said the King of Rohan. He spoke lightly, but Faramir noticed the grave anxiety in his voice. “I shall take good care of it,” he promised.

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“I reckon you’ll find many things changed since your last visit to the city,” said Lôkhî as he glanced over Faramir’s shoulder at the map the Dúnadan had spread on his knees. He was sitting on the shattered remains of a huge pillar of white marble. Overgrown with gorse and opuntias and sweet-smelling myrtles, the broken shaft lay on the summit of the steep hill that formed a headland to the Bay of Umbar on its north-western side.

After a stealthy journey along the narrow and much winding coast-road the small company consisting of Faramir, Lôkhî, two rangers and two men of Khorazîr’s household had reached this hill, the place appointed with Elessar’s messenger. The day was the 15th of Úrimë, the sixth after Al-Jahmîr’s party, and the sixth also without any word from either Éowyn or any of their spies inside the castle, and from Khorazîr, Narejde and their companions.

The journey had been relatively smooth and easy. They had decided against using the main road to the city which did not follow the coastline but crossed the range of hills dividing the bays of Soorah and Umbar in a direct course. The coast-road was hardly used anymore, being more than twice as long and not in very good repair. Still their going – mostly by night – had been fast. Moreover they had used the time to further spy out the countryside to the south of Ihimbra. Lined up along the coast-road were a number of old watchtowers, most of them in varying states of disrepair, but some showing signs of recent restoration and re-occupation. Al-Jahmîr was keeping horses stabled at regular intervals to allow for a swift passage of errand-riders, and in some places beacons had been established, perhaps to warn against an attack from sea.

“There’s been a lot of building in the past ten years,” went on Lôkhî, climbing over the pillar and standing in front of Faramir, gazing down at the great sea-port with his hands on his hips, “when trade and commerce began to pick up again after the War, and people realised there’s actually profits to be made from dealing with the tarks. All those warehouses along the waterfront are new, as are the eastern quays and ship-yards, and most of the buildings climbing that hill yonder, below the terraced orchards and vineyards.”

Faramir raised his eyes from the map and followed his companion’s outstretched arm as he pointed out various new structures in the bay below. It was the hour of sunset, and the sun, having escaped a low layer of cloud on the western horizon, was gilding the haven below and causing the mostly white limestone buildings of Umbar to glow in warm colours. The stones on the hill were still exuding warmth, now comfortable and welcome after the main heat of the day had passed. A strong, cool air from the sea had come up. There was a constant chirping about them, mixed with the sigh of the wind and the cries of gulls sailing on the breeze. Soon, however, the light would fade, and swiftly night would come on. Even after having spent so much time in the Harad now, Faramir still felt surprised at the relative brevity of dusk and dawn compared to what he was used to in Gondor.

The city had grown indeed since he had seen it last, about a decade ago. Obviously, it had prospered, for not only had it increased in size and proportions, but also, it seemed, in self-confidence. The quays had been newly repaired and fortified, and the artificial headland built into the bay from the south-eastern side to narrow the entrance to the harbour proper had been strengthened, the lighthouse on its furthermost point raised to almost double of its former height. Not long, and its powerful lamps would be lit for the night. There were many new warehouses and wharfs. On the lower slopes of the hills surrounding the harbour rose manors and palaces of the wealthy and influencial families who ruled the city, and they, too, looked larger and more resplendent than what Faramir remembered. The city walls shielding Umbar against attacks from land had been restored as well, looping the three hills the city climbed to north, east and south like a broad white ribbon, with watchtowers breaking its smooth undulating flow like knots or pearls on a piece of string. A new water-gate had been built over Sîr Umbar, the river that entered the haven from the east, cutting the city in two and reaching the waterfront amidst a maze of narrow channels and waterways still busy with traffic. The river was one of the main links into the countryside beyond. Even now Faramir could descry floats of timber moving down towards the river-gate, to feed the ever-hungry shipyards and so increase Umbar’s merchant fleet, the main source of its current wealth and power. The new gate had been built to accommodate these floats, as well as ships travelling up- and downriver.

Most of this fleet, along with hundreds of smaller sea-faring vessels of all shapes and sizes lay currently huddled together inside the harbour, as if to take shelter against the threat from the north that anchored beyond the lighthouse out in the bay, screening the entire haven like a forest of masts, many of which were flying the King’s black and silver colours. There were also brighter spots of hue: the colours of Dol-Amroth and Pelargir, and of the smaller coastal fiefs of Gondor.

“It strikes me that they’re still flying the city’s colours,” mused Lôkhî as if sharing Faramir’s thoughts. He was rummaging in Faramir’s saddle-bags to retrieve the other’s writing utensils. “I would have thought they’d take them down after your King arrived. But then I guess they’re rather proud they finally managed to settle on the design, after all the trouble they had with it, and so don’t let out an opportunity to display them.”

“Trouble with the design?” asked Faramir, nodding a thanks as he took quill and ink from the Haradan.

“Oh yes. That was quite an act, I can tell you, from what I heard. Those families pulling the strings in the city quarrelled over the proper look for years and years. You see, nobody wanted the others to have an advantage because their own devices were included and others weren’t. They almost shed blood over it. Can you believe it? War because of a scrap of cloth with some fancy colours? But in the end, surprisingly, they found something they all could live with, more or less. You can see it there, on the lighthouse, and on those large warships over there.”

Faramir smiled as he watched the banners flap in the breeze. “A golden ship on a purple field. I recall seeing it before, but I did not know it stood for Umbar. Still, it makes sense. The ship harks back to ancient history. After all, the city was founded by sea-faring Númenoreans. And purple dye is, as I understand, one of its major sources of wealth. The snails are much sought after in Gondor, and achieve high prices accordingly.”

Lôkhî grinned. “You do know your history. Over there on the southern hill is your governor’s palace. Or former governor, I should say. They’ve taken down his colours, at least, to cheers from the population, I warrant. Strange though that your King shouldn’t have raised his own.”

“I think it was wise to refrain from that,” said Faramir. “It would have looked like he was taking possession of the place, which would not have gone down well with the locals. Our fleet blockading the harbour is intimidation, even threat enough. After all, we must not seem like a conquering force.”

Lôkhî raised his eyebrows. “What else are you then?”

Faramir shrugged. “Friendly advisors,” he suggested with a faint grin.

Lôkhî gave a snort. “Friendly advisors indeed! Tell that to the Umbarians! Look what they did last time they they’d kicked out the “friendly advisors” from Gondor. You’re actually sitting on the remains.”

Faramir ran a hand along the still smooth marble. “Yes, it must have been a splendid sight when it was still standing,” he said softly, recalling the tales he had read about the great monument set upon the hill-top to commemorate Ar-Pharazôn’s victory over Sauron. “’Tis said that the great orb of crystal that rested on the pillar’s top could be seen even from Gondor when it caught the light of sun or moon. I wonder what they did to it when they cast down the pillar.”

“I have no doubt the Umbarians found good use for the crystal,” said Lôkhî with a wry smile. “Chopped it up and sold the pieces, I’d say they did. Most likely they’re treasured heirlooms now in many of the ‘important’ families, set in rings and necklaces to adorn their offspring. I wonder they didn’t fetch this marble, though. The pillar must have been remarkable workmanship to have stood so long, weathering storms and heat.”

“The path is too narrow for carts. Most likely it was made by the goats we have seen on the lowers slopes,” said Faramir, indicating the winding, stony track they had climbed toward the summit amid the tangled shrubs that were typical for the coastal regions, in these lands where most of the large, stately oaks once covering the hills had been felled for ship-building. Now only scrub remained: holm oaks, tree heath, arbutus, sage, juniper, buckthorn, wild olives and myrtle, their spicy scents mingling on the breeze. “I wonder how they managed to raise the pillar in the first place. Yet, there seems to have been a road to the summit at one point. There were traces of it when we rode up here, much cracked and overgrown. Down where we left the horses, for example. Umbar is a very ancient city, older even than Minas Tirith, even though it may have changed more over the centuries in its design.”

Lôkhî nodded. “Even in my own lifetime there have been many changes. The Umbarians are good at using old structures to change into new ones. Many of the palaces you see there have been built on much older foundations, and what’s more with the stones of buildings that stood there before.”

“You know the place well?” asked Faramir.

Lôkhî shrugged. “Fairly, yes. I spent several years there on and off. My family hails from a village some miles to the south, beyond that hill, and we lads were often sent to the market to sell stuff. Later, after I’d left home, I joined a gang of youngsters that roamed the city.”

“How old were you then?” inquired Faramir.

“About fourteen. We’d hit on some hard times at home, and I didn’t get along with my old man anymore, so I got out as soon as I could. Looking back, life wasn’t easier in the city. In fact, it was pretty tough. Still, I got to know lots of interesting places and people, then.”

“And you picked up a few interesting skills, I daresay,” added Faramir.

Lôkhî grinned briefly, before his expression turned serious. “Skills necessary for survival,” he said quietly. “Those were dark times. Even though people complain about the evil tarks – the friendly advisors, I mean –, back when the Dark Lord and his minions were masters of the haven, back then folks truly had reason to moan and wail. I narrowly missed getting ‘volunteered’ for service in the navy. Unless you were a trained sailor or soldier, you ended up manning the oars, no better than the lowliest slave. Some of my friends had the bad fortune of getting caught and volunteered. I never saw then again.”

He stared down at the many-oared Umbarian war-ships swaying gently on the incoming tide, his face grave. Then with a small sigh he shook himself, and giving Faramir a faint smile, he said, “I’m glad those times are over. Do we have any water left?”

Faramir picked up the waterskin next to him on the stones and gave it a shake. “Some,” he replied. “I hope we will not have to wait much longer. I do not feel safe here. We are quite exposed on this hill, and ‘tis still light enough to see us from afar.”

“Well, you said the messenger was trustworthy.”

“He was, one of Elessar’s own kinsmen. Still, I should like to move on. Also, I am desperate for tidings from Ihimbra. ‘Tis almost been a week now, and we have not heard anything from inside the castle.”

Lôkhî shook his head slightly. “I told you we should have intercepted that second errand-rider as well. He might have had tidings from Ihimbra – more than the first, anyway.”

Faramir gazed at him, then back at the haven. The incident had caused a great deal of discussion in their company, and in retrospect, although his decision had prevailed in the end, he was no longer sure if his choice had been right.

“We could have taken him without the fellows in the watchtower noticing,” said Lôkhî, as if to further increase his doubts. “After all, we slipped past them as well, and even in broad daylight. They weren’t of the sharp sort, obviously.”

Faramir sighed. “Catching the man would not have posed a problem,” he admitted, not cherishing to discuss the matter yet again. “But what would we have done with him after the interrogation? He would have been too great a liability. And we could not have taken him with us.”

Lôkhî gave him a meaningful glance. “There would have been a quick solution to that problem, and you know that. Errand-riders disappear all the time in these parts. It’s not exactly a profession devoid of danger.”

“It would have meant more killing. You know I did not approve of how you dealt with the first man we intercepted.”

Lôkhî huffed. “Aye, you made your point quite clear,” he muttered. Turning to Faramir, he fixed him in a grave stare. “Dúnadan, do you really believe we will clean up this mess without any more lives lost?”

“No, I do not. But the longer this drags on, the more I resent the bloodshed – even those occasions when it cannot be avoided. But Lôkhî, let the matter with the messenger rest. I may have decided wrongly then, but the chance is past. Perhaps the pickets have spotted something of interest.”

He gave a low whistle, and Edrahil appeared silently out of scrub. He and Cemendur had ventured out to scout the countryside, while their other two companions, Melek and Hamîn, native Umbarians both of them and familiar with the place, had gone into the city proper to gather tidings. Like Lôkhî and Faramir, the rangers were clad in southron robes to render them as inconspicuous as possible. For the ride, all six of them had even donned chain-mail underneath their burnouses. Although the armour and especially the padded tunic underneath were uncomfortably hot and heavy in the southern climate, by now they had gotten used to it.

“Captain, is anything the matter?” inquired Edrahil as he stepped before Faramir.

“Well, I had hoped you could tell me,” replied the addressed. “Have you noticed any people approaching, from land or sea? We have been waiting here ever since the tide turned, and I should not like to spend the entire night up on this hill.”

Edrahil shook his head. “We did not spot anybody except the two children minding the goats, and even they left not long ago. Cemendur set out to follow them cautiously, to see if they start talking to anybody.”

“Perhaps we should try and find your people on our own,” suggested Lôkhî. “I can’t imagine this being difficult.”

Faramir nodded slowly, divided in mind. He wanted to leave. A growing anxiety had taken hold of him. He knew his presence in the city would not remain secret for long, which actually was part of the plan to draw Al-Jahmîr’s attention away from his immediate surroundings. But he had hoped to reach a fairly safe refuge before rumour about his arrival inevitably began to spread.

“Elessar must have had a reason for wanting to meet outside the city,” he mused, “but I think we have waited long enough. He must know by now where we are – surely this place is being watched.”

Lôkhî nodded grimly. “Surely. And not by his people only, I daresay. Come on, let’s pack up and leave. I know a place where we can lie low without attracting unwelcome attention. We all need a good night’s sleep, and some decent food for a change.” He gave a wry smile. “A bath would be nice, too, but I can’t guarantee for that.”

Faramir and Edrahil exchanged a glance, wondering where the small man would be leading them. “Why don’t we just ride up to Lord Beretar’s place?” asked the ranger. “Some of our people must be there, surely.”

“We do not know the exact state of matters there,” cautioned Faramir, standing and returning map and writing utensils to his bags. “And until we have more information, I suggest we follow Lôkhî’s lead.”

As they descended the narrow path, he wondered why Elessar had not kept the appointment, and not even sent word, further instructions, anything. It was very unlike the King. His sense of unease growing, Faramir cast a last glance over his shoulder at the fleet riding on the gilded waves, before returning his gaze to the steep rugged track, wondering what place Lôkhî would lead them to.

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