He was hot, and the only blessing was that this was such a dry heat. The sweat did not lie on the skin and smother it, but evaporated away quickly. The negative part of it, however, was that his skin was ever dry and tasted of salt, and needed always to be bathed frequently and rubbed with unguents two or three times daily if it were not to split and form sores.
He dressed in the flowing white robe suggested by Meriti, the trader from Harad who traveled twice a year between his homeland and Minas Tirith to bring the exotic fruits and products of his land to trade for the fine porcelains and metalwork and foodstuffs of the North which were craved in Harad. It was said that there were mines in the southern reaches of Far Harad and smiths of unparalleled skills; but he’d not gone that far. He’d made it into Far Harad, but had begun to turn his feet back North again, realizing that if he didn’t, he would miss his expected rendezvous with the ship at the harbors of Risenmouthe, which could easily be disastrous. If Hardorn didn’t see him on the great quays when the ship arrived at the port, he’d undoubtedly leave it and go through the city and single-handedly tear it apart. And the wanderer did not desire to see that happen.
He’d made it back to the heavily populated delta region far more swiftly than he’d made it to Far Harad, for on the way South he’d stopped constantly to look, examine, learn. He’d found each settlement had its own patois, but the Trader’s Tongue, which was a mixture of full Haradri with many words he recognized as from Westron and even Sindarin of Gondorian influence, served him well enough.
He wondered what Ecthelion and Denethor would think of him now, of what he’d done with the warehouse-full of goods which he’d purchased during the years of service he’d given Gondor. He didn’t know if Ecthelion was aware of the warehouse he’d leased on the Harlond, but knew Denethor had learned of it and had even had it searched more than once, not that he’d ever found anything of question there. Fabrics of wool, many from the North of Arnor, even some from the Shire which had been purchased for him in Bree; linens from Lebennin and Belfalas; fine porcelains from Lossarnach and the White City; metalwork from Erebor, the Iron Hills, and the Dwarf holdings in the Northern Misty Mountains; turned and carved wooden items from Lebennin and the North; fine embroideries and tapestries; and a great number of tanned hides from Rohan and Dunland and Arnor as well as Gondor, for the leathers of the North were considered of great value here in the Southern reaches of Middle Earth. When Denethor had questioned him obliquely about this wealth of goods, he’d answered honestly enough that he was of a mind one day to see the lands of those who were the greatest foes of Gondor, to learn of them; and the best disguise for this would be to travel as a merchant. Denethor had looked at him askance, but had not been able to find anything more suspicious in this pronouncement than he’d already found in the one known as Thorongil, the mysterious Captain thought by some to be Denethor’s illegitimate brother.
It was not until many months after he’d left Gondor after the victory in Umbar that a ship had come to the Harlond and had filled its holds from the items in that warehouse. By the time Denethor had realized what warehouse it emptied it had already sailed, and he missed his chance to slip one of his own agents aboard it. The Harbor Master had not recognized Captain Thorongil in the shaven-faced merchant who dressed in fine green and who oversaw the loading of his ship. Some of those who’d manned this ship had spoken Westron as it was spoken in the north; a few appeared to have come from Belfalas and even Anfalas, while six were obviously from the Pelargir. They saw to the loading of the ship, had paid their fees and export taxes without undue grumbling, and sailed away; and when Denethor came with his Men to search the warehouse one last time they found it empty save for great green leaves of a sort he’d not seen before, leaves which appeared to have been wrapped about packets of some form of travel bread.
The wanderer didn’t care. He’d leased beasts of burden and purchased a horse for himself on his arrival in Risenmouthe, advised by Meriti’s son, who had bargained also with the camel drivers and master and caravan guards who’d traveled with him. He’d been advised as to which folk he’d need to bribe, and which not to bribe as well. He’d been given maps to follow, advice on which routes were to be avoided due to the known presence of bandits, and had finally been turned loose to examine Harad and Far Harad.
He’d examined the guards, swiftly tested and weeded them out, and in their camp two days southeast of Risenmouthe had worked on training them to follow his orders. Some had resented him at first, until they realized this was a swordsman like themselves--only far better than all of them, and with a grasp on tactics none of them could match. After a week of intense practice under his eye, they finally set off southwards, moving slowly from village to village, holding to holding, selling and buying, then selling and buying again until they were far South indeed.
Twice their caravan had been attacked, but each time he’d been aware of the watch kept on them, had laid his plans, and both times they’d come away unscathed while the bandits had in each case been quickly defeated. The first time half those attacking them had been killed; the second time all had been captured alive, and they’d been completely stripped and left in a small, deserted oasis to be found by the next caravan through, their bravado as completely stripped away as their clothing and weapons.
He’d finally left the caravan himself three days North of the mines of Ephir, and had given orders to Khafiramun, the overseer for the caravan, to do what trading they could there, then return as directly as possible to Risenmouthe with what goods he’d purchased, and that his ship would be waiting when they arrived. By this time he was certain Khafiramun would follow through on his orders, for he’d proven himself several times over and had even managed to save the caravan master’s life three times. Yes, Khafiramun would follow through, and Bhatfiri, captain of the caravan guards, would further see to it that his orders were followed to the letter.
He was still several days from Risenmouthe, but as his ship was not due for another fortnight that was no great problem. As a single rider of a horse with little to distinguish him he’d not been given much notice. He’d stopped at the camps of family groups, had admired their flocks and herds in their own tongue and with appropriate words, had been accepted as a welcome guest, had paid for their hospitality with wonderful tales, songs sung in languages they for the most part didn’t know, and in one case with aid for a sick child. Three days he’d stayed with that group until the child was clearly recovering from the fever which had looked to claim his life, and the boy’s parents had been loth to let him depart, had insisted in the end on giving him one of their best camels to lead away with him.
He wasn’t positive what he’d do with the camel. He had enough experience with the beasts by this time to realize this camel was of superb breeding, and knew also that if he hadn’t accepted the animal he would have insulted the family past bearing. He contemplated sending it to Minas Tirith with a ribbon about its neck, and a label marked To Lord Denethor, with the compliments of Captain Thorongil. He was imagining the response likely to such a gift when he heard the quiet confrontation going on nearby.
“You do not go before the altars of the Eastern Lord,” a voice was saying in formal Haradri.
“I offer proper worship to the lords of the Dead, to Osiri and Annubi,” was the response, a younger voice, a wary voice. “And I properly fear the wrath of Seti.”
The listening wanderer’s attention was caught immediately. The young speaker was being cautious in what he said and how he stated it. It was the equivalent, he knew, to an admission of being respectful to those who governed the Halls of Mandos and dreading Morgoth. He knew that here in Harad Sauron claimed to be a form of the god of Death, and most accepted him as such. It was the only way that those who would not follow Sauron were able to avoid actively supporting him, for they could insist--rightly--that they were indeed respectful to the lords of Death and prove that they attended worship services in their temples. Sauron and his servants had not as yet managed to have his own altars placed in the older temples, where respect for the old ways was still heavily entrenched. There were enough who were eager to placate the Eye who would put up new buildings and altars elsewhere that he did not seek to desecrate all the older temples. Even Sauron realized--at times--that to do so would lead to loss of following over time, would increase the realization he was not what he pretended to be.
So the wanderer dismounted his horse, fastened the camel’s lead rope to the saddle’s pommel, slipped the leather hobbles about the horse’s legs, and quietly followed the voices, for once wishing his robe were grey or dun rather than white, for he feared it would give him away.
As he climbed the slight ridge, he came at last into sight of the delta and its channels, and there, below him, were the two he’d heard. The older was tall and lean. The smaller Man was slight, with the darkened skin of one who was born in this land, who’d spent his entire life beneath the glare of Amon, as they called the Sun here. Both were dressed in the formal white kilts worn by nobles here, with fantastically detailed pectoral collars of the animal forms the folk of Near Harad ascribed to the Valar. Both wore sandals which were expensive, and heavy amulet bracelets on their wrists. The taller Man also wore a formal cape over his shoulders, one which, the watcher realized, hid a dagger caught in a sheath high on the Man’s left side, just below the shoulder.
They were approaching the reeds which marked one of the marshy areas where the nobles of Harad tended to hunt waterfowl, and they had stopped their talking as they checked to see if any prey swam in the shallow water amidst the papyrus stems and the great white and smaller blue water lilies. The younger carried a short bird bow and a light quiver which held the bird bolts preferred by hunters of this land, and carried several shaped wooden sticks in his belt--throwing sticks, the wanderer recalled they were named. How one would hunt with such things he had no idea, and he almost wished he could see them in use; but his attention was drawn to the taller Man, who had allowed the shorter to draw ahead of him. Neither carried a sword, and the taller carried no visible weapon other than the throwing sticks in his belt. He’d had one in his hand, but now he was silently slipping it back into his belt, was reaching up to the dagger high on his side, the one hidden from the eyes of the youth with whom he hunted.
So intent was he on the youth, whose own attention had been drawn to a drake paddling in the shallow water, that the wanderer was able slip down the ridge undetected. The dagger was now unsheathed, and the taller Man was stepping forward, reaching--the intention, the watcher realized, was not yet to wound but to disarm--for now, at least. He reached forward and expertly caught the leather of the quiver’s strap, sliced it across so that it slipped from the younger Man’s shoulder. At the sudden loss of its weight and sound of its fall the younger Man straightened, turned, surprised and shocked, his eyes focusing on the one facing him as the startled drake left the water with a quack of alarm.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Oh,” said the other, “I simply desire to disarm you for now. So, you would honor Annubi and Osiri, but say nothing of the Eastern Lord?”
“Does he not claim to be the Lord of Death in one of his forms? If so, then surely the honor offered to the other forms would be received by him, would it not?”
“Perhaps. But it is in the form of the Eye of Fire he prefers to be honored. And, I think, it will be to his honor I will dedicate your death.”
“And why do you do this now? I am but a lesser son to my father--I am not even his heir.”
“It is Ma’osiri I now seek to impress, Sohrabi. I would have him realize that I do not flinch from offering even his father’s proper sons when their deaths are demanded.”
“The Death Eater has demanded my life?”
“No, he himself has not done this, but Virubat has seen that your death would be both acceptable and expedient at this time.”
“And why do you tell me this?”
“For our master is best pleased when the one offered is in proper despair and fear. Do you deny being in fear for your life?”
The wanderer now spoke. “So, you would strengthen the Dark Lord, would you?” Both whirled to face him, uncertain how this other had come to be there with them. “I find I have an intense dislike for those who support the aims of the lord of Mordor, and I think I will stop this if I can--and I know I can stop it.” He drew from his belt a dagger he’d been given by Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth, carefully crafted, seemingly plain yet full of subtle beauty, deceptively simple in design. “I am no callow youth, my friend. Shall we see how well you fight with one who is properly armed?”
The taller Man was no longer looking particularly alarmed, was smiling, even. “I do not know who you are or where you come from, pariah,” he said through gritted teeth. “But I know that you will die this day.”
The fight was short and intense, and the wanderer was full glad for the hours spent with his brothers practicing with daggers, for his opponent was wily and skillful. Those who had taught him, however, had known millennia in which to hone their skills, and had packed all they had learned of fighting with knives into the time they spent teaching him. The Man he faced was tall for his people, but the wanderer was taller still, his reach longer and better directed. He didn’t manage to disarm his foe, but in the end managed to drive his weapon into the Man’s shoulder, then rip it downwards through the ribcage and the heart, and with a look of shock and disbelief the Southron stumbled to his knees, then pitched forward, dead.
The wanderer had pulled away as the Haradri fell to his knees, knowing the wound was mortal, but found his eyes drawn to the other’s hand, where the Man wore a great ring, a ring with a motif he’d been taught to recognize, though he’d never actually seen one before. Here was the reason this one had thought he’d prevail--he wore one of the lesser rings crafted by Sauron within the Sammath Naur. He gave a deep, shuddering sigh as he leaned down, lifted up a corner of the Man’s cape, and used it to wipe clean the blade of his dagger.
The youth looked up at him, his face pale beneath his dark skin, his eyes wide with surprise. “Who are you, and how came you here?” he demanded.
The Northerner looked down at him and examined him coolly. “It matters little who I am. I am a visitor to your land, one who has traveled through Harad as a trader and merchant, and I am headed back to the harbor of Risenmouthe where my ship will soon arrive to return me to my own people.”
“Where is your caravan?”
“It is now on its return trip north from Ephir. I took so long going southwards, I left early to return so as to be in Risenmouthe when my ship arrives, that my kinsman coming with it does not worry for my safety.”
“You do not believe he could possess his soul with patience until your return?”
“I know he would not possess his soul with patience if I were not there to welcome him. He is not known for great patience, and I fear that the city of Risenmouthe would suffer for his concern for me.”
Sohrabi surprised himself by laughing. His companion, however, was looking down again with concern at the corpse of the one who lay before him. “Why bother for him? He would have slain me.”
“I know, and I’d gladly leave him to your carrion beasts. However, I must see to the disposal of the ring he wears.”
“You recognize its device? Would others recognize him by it?”
“This ring was not crafted for recognition, young Lord. It was crafted for authority. It must not fall into the hands of others. I must see to its destruction.”
“I would feed it to the crocodiles with his body.”
The tall Man shook his head. “No, for even then there is the risk someone some day might find it, which even were Sauron no more would lead to great evil. I have been taught what must be done for it.” He knelt by the body, started to reach for the hand, then on touching it he drew back, his face suddenly pale and his eyes open as if with unexpected pain. “I cannot touch it,” he finally said with surprise.
“Why not? Will the gods of death take you if you try?”
The other shook his head, his face grimacing. “No, it is not that. Adar told me that with my breeding I would most like not be able to tolerate the touch of such a thing, and I find he is right.” He reached beneath his white robe, pulled out a pouch of worn green leather. He untied the cord that sealed it, brought out a small bag of silk. It was too small to place entirely over the finger. Finally he looked at Sohrabi and sighed. “I hate to ask you to do this for me, for no one ought to touch this thing any longer than necessary. Will you remove it for me, place it in this? It must be destroyed as soon as possible.”
Sohrabi looked up into the earnest face, sighed and shrugged, then reached down. He found he did not like touching the dead hand, but he did what was necessary, stretched out the finger, grasped the ring and removed it. He shuddered as he held it, disgusted in some way at its touch, for he felt as he would being forced to hold some eyeless, slimy thing from far beneath the surface of the ground; but as he held it over the mouth of the small silk bag he felt a reluctance to let it go.
“Drop it now,” the other said with a voice of deep authority. Sohrabi found himself obeying immediately, and saw the sagging of the bag in the other’s hand as it fell to the bag’s bottom. In a second the tall Man had it twisted, drew tight fine drawstrings he’d not noticed, saw them wrapped about the mouth of the bag and tied together. Dangling the silk bag from his fingertips, he opened the worn green pouch and dropped it inside, slipped the pouch back inside his robes.
“What will you do with it?”
“I will not tell you, other than that it will be destroyed.”
“Why destroy it?”
“Because it is one of the Enemy’s traps, intended to utterly enslave the wearer while convincing him he is a power to be dealt with.”
“You have seen one before?”
“I have seen pictures of them done by those who have seen them, and have been instructed as to how to destroy it.”
“You call the Death Eater the Enemy?”
The tall Man facing him shrugged. “It is the first time I have heard him referred to as the Death Eater, although he has been long known as the Necromancer, which means much the same thing, I suppose. It is how he has rebuilt his power until he is now almost as great as he was before he was vanquished by Elendil, Gil-galad, and Isildur.”
“I do not understand--he has been vanquished before?”
“Yes, almost three thousand years past. But he was ignored too long, and he returns as he was before.”
“How was it done?”
“It was after ten years of besieging him within Mordor with mixed troops of Elves and Men--finally the forces of the Free Peoples broke through his walls and drove his people back to Orodruin itself, where he faced Gil-galad and Elendil the Tall. They gave themselves to throw him down, and Isildur, taking up the hilt of his father’s broken sword, was able to cut from his hand his great Ring of Power before he could rise again, which broke his strength.”
“If he was vanquished, then how has he risen again now?”
The face of the Man facing him had grown bitter. “Isildur did not destroy the Ring when the chance presented itself--instead he allowed himself to be taken by It. And eventually It betrayed him to his death, as It undoubtedly would do to any foolish enough to try to claim It. Until Sauron’s own Ring is destroyed, he will be ever able to rise again--particularly when he is allowed to feed on the deaths of so many.”
“You speak as one who knows.”
Sohrabi looked deeply into eyes that spoke of bitterness and much grief. “I am one who knows, my friend. All my life I have seen the works of Sauron, heard the tales of Sauron, have spoken with those who fought and continue to fight Sauron, and have fought his creatures myself. Now, would you betray me to his people?”
“You have saved me from one of his--do you think I would help them now?”
“Is there any other who knew you were with this one, who would know he marked you for death?”
Sohrabi sighed. “Virubat. The Smiling One knows....”
The one with him sighed. “Tell me about this Smiling One.”