Virubat was not of Harad, for he had been born in Umbar, descended from the Black Númenoreans. His family had carried the burden of hatred and jealousy of the descendants of the followers of Elendil the Tall for the past three thousand years, for in coming to Middle Earth these had usurped the rule Virubat’s ancestors had begun to wield over the Men and lands they’d found there, leaving them only the land of Umbar left, only a portion of the tracts they’d commanded before the foundering of the Island of the Star.
As had many from Umbar, Virubat had sworn himself to the service of Sauron and Mordor, for he’d accept any ally that offered assistance in gaining vengeance on Gondor for the many victories that land had known over Umbar over the years. But he had never agreed to wear one of Sauron’s gifts of rings, fearing rightly that such would cause even more changes in himself than he wished to experience.
Maruset had accepted such, however, and had begun to be recognized as powerful in Harad. He’d set up altars to the Dark Lord throughout the land of Near Harad, had sought to drive many to sacrifice at them, had insisted that the Death Eater was a manifestation of the lord of Death, had even tried to suppress the worship of Osiri and Annubi. Yet, in spite of the growing recognition, fear, and power Maruset had begun to know in Near Harad, he still listened when Virubat spoke, still went after the targets Virubat pointed out, recognizing that Virubat had been sent by the Death Eater himself and wanting to ingratiate himself the more.
Virubat had seen that the current Farozi was a dissolute enough fellow who mistook virility and fecundity for strength, and had encouraged him in his predations on the womenfolk of the Risen’s valley. That gave Maruset a great pool of royal blood from which to choose victims for the Death Eater’s altars--victims the Farozi appeared to ignore completely. Instead he had made quite the ceremony of taking his conquests, formally recognizing the children born of these assignations, then forgetting their existence.
Sohrabi, however, had been actively working to stop Virubat and Maruset’s own predations, having convinced his father to allow him to establish a great house, and here he’d been gathering as many of his illegitimate brothers and sisters as he could identify. This level of responsibility was not a welcome phenomenon, for those who lived in the houses of the nobles were considered out of bounds for those who collected victims. So it was that Virubat has suggested the hunting party, one in which Sohrabi himself should become the prey. Thinking of the young prince of Harad being hunted himself by Maruset pleased Virubat, particularly as the young Man’s expression whenever he must look upon Virubat had always been somewhat disturbing. To realize that Sohrabi saw him as wanting made him angry as well as shaking his certainty that none could hurt him. Knowing that the young prince's death could be useful in intimidating his older brother was pleasing to Virubat.
Virubat decided not to go to the Farozi’s house after all, but to repair to his own place within the city. He would attend on the Farozi later, after the word had come that Sohrabi had not returned to his own house, after it was realized that Sohrabi was dead in a tragic hunting accident. Virubat hoped only that Maruset would wait until he’d spotted a nearby crocodile before killing Sohrabi.
“What is your name?” Sohrabi asked his companion.
The tall, pale Northerner shrugged as he thought. Finally he said, “In your tongue you may call me Horubi’ninarin. There is no exact translation, I fear.”
Sohrabi laughed. “Falcon of stars? A sun figure and the stars in the same breath does sound incongruous--yet, I think it fits you well enough.” When the taller Man looked at him in question, Sohrabi explained, “Horubin is one of the symbols of the Sun, after all, the high flying golden falcon who appears out of the sunlight to the consternation of its enemies.”
“I see. I am only now coming to understand the beliefs of your people.”
“You have the golden falcon in your land?”
The other smiled. “You do not appear to have here the great Eagles, which are high fliers as is the golden falcon, are hunting birds also, but are far greater in size and majesty than the falcon is. They make their nests high in the mountains at the top of ledges, while the lesser eagles nest near them and at the tops of the greatest of trees. Long have our peoples seen them as the messengers of those you call the gods. We do not see them as manifestations of their masters, however.
“We do have falcons and hawks of several types, from the merlins of the far northwestern downs to the peregrines and gyrefalcons. But from what I have seen, the golden falcon is native to this land, and is well suited for it.”
“You are a hunter.”
“Yes, among other things.”
“The dagger at your belt is deadly, and you use it well.”
“It was a gift, and those who are as my brothers have ever seen to it that I know how to wield my weapons.”
“Then you know the use of the sword that is tied to the pommel of your saddle, also?” He indicated the horse which the taller Man now led.
“How came you by the camel? She is a particularly fine beast.”
“I was given it in thanks for assisting in the care for an ill child.”
“You are a healer also?”
His companion nodded. “Yes.”
“It is not a common combination, to be warrior, hunter, and healer all three.”
The other simply shrugged. Then he asked, “Have you a stable where my horse and camel can be hidden?”
“Good. Thank you.”
“You are from Gondor?”
“I have sojourned there, but am not of that land--not yet.”
“You intend to be so?”
The tall, pale Northerner again shrugged noncommitally.
“Who taught you the art of healing?”
“I learned it from my youth. It is common to my family to practice healing.”
“Who taught you the warrior’s way?”
“And who taught you hunting?”
“Again, my brothers. I would like to see how the throwing sticks are used, though, for such are not used among the peoples among whom I’ve moved to date.”
“Perhaps we will have a chance to see such in the days to come.”
“I have almost fourteen days yet ere my ship is due and my cousin comes to claim me. I think we may indeed have time. Where is the house of Virubat?”
Amonrabi heard the back door open and close, then two sets of footsteps in the rear entranceway. Alarmed that his lord brother might have brought Maruset here, he hurried to look out, then found himself almost face to face with a stranger, pale skinned naturally, he thought, but tanned by exposure to the Sun of Harad, his eyes a clear grey with only a hint of blue and green, as sometimes the surface of the sea or the River might show. This Man was exceptionally tall, making Sohrabi look quite short by comparison. His build was difficult to tell, for he wore the loose white robe and headcloth of a trader.
“I did not bring with me Maruset, my brother,” Sohrabi assured him.
“The hunting did not last long, and I see no ducks.
Sohrabi’s face hardened. “You were right, Amonrabi--it was intended that I was to be the prey this day. However, this one heard the words of Maruset as he threatened me, and saw to Maruset’s death.” He set his quiver with its cut strap on a table, then his bow as well, and at last his belt knife. Amonrabi looked at the evidence of treachery grimly.
The stranger untied the cord for his headcloth, then the cloth itself. His hair was dark, as was common also with the people of Northern Harad; but it was finer that that of their people, and gently waved where the hair of their people was usually tightly kinked or unmercifully straight. He’d pulled it back into a tail at the nape of his neck, and it appeared to fall below his shoulders. He was one who raised a beard, Amonrabi noted, although he’d obviously been shaving it daily.
He then removed his white outer robe, and beneath it wore a loose shirt of unbleached cotton, and bloused trousers of slightly heavier cloth of the same source dyed brown. He wore over it a belt of dark green leather, from which hung a fine sword of Northern pattern, a dagger in its sheath, and a belt purse of worn green leather. He wore a chain of silver about his neck under his shirt, but what hung from it could not be seen. On his feet he wore boots of a soft leather, finely tooled although well worn.
The stranger was slender and well-muscled, of indeterminate age, obviously intelligent and capable; and he walked as does one who is equally at home on a horse or his feet, although there was the roll also one often saw in those who had spent time on the sea. His expression at the moment was mild enough, but Amonrabi sensed that it would be best not to press him hard or question his authority too deeply.
Sohrabi said by way of introduction, “He is to be called Horubi’ninarin. He is a trader, and is come back from Ephir so as to be here when his ship returns to Risenmouthe.”
“You have a caravan?” asked Amonrabi.
“Yes--it should now be returning from Ephir under the supervision of my caravan master and guard captain.”
“Who is caravan master?”
“His name is Khafiramun.”
The two Haradrim looked to one another. “Khafiramun is highly respected by our people,” Sohrabi commented.
“And with good reason,” Horubi’ninarin agreed. “He wasn’t certain at first I would do as a client, but finally accepted me and has proven both loyal and trustworthy.”
“And who did you choose as captain of your caravan guards?” asked Amonrabi.
“Bhatfiri of Kostos.”
“One of the best.”
“He knows his business, I found,” the trader commented. “We have come to respect one another.”
“If you handle your sword as well as you do your dagger,” Sohrabi said dryly, “I’m certain Bhatfiri would respect you indeed.”
Horubi’ninarin smiled, then grew more serious. “I would like to go to this Virubat’s house, for it would be easier to take him from there where he feels safe and is himself less likely to keep a close watch, where he believes the eyes of others watch out for his safety, rather than on the street. You see, I do not care greatly for those who incite the murders of others.” He looked to Amonrabi. “Is there a room in this house where he could be kept securely?”
Sohrabi’s steward looked to his brother, then turned back to the guest of the house. “There is one inside room which is intended for the keeping of wine which could be put to that use.”
“Let me see it. And is there anything which I could wear that would make me look to be a bodyguard of your people?”
Virubat of the Smile was reading a communication from Umbar which had arrived with several from Mordor while he was with Maruset. So far no one had been able to find out what had become of the mysterious Captain Thorongil who had served first Thengel of Rohan and then Ecthelion of Gondor. He’d been injured in the assault on the fleet of Umbar, but how seriously no one knew. The injury had not impeded his handling of his sword, that was certain. However, after leaving the harbor and ships in flames, he’d separated himself from Prince Adrahil’s Men, and disappeared with his aide de camp.
The horses the two had been riding had been found in the paddock of a farm belonging to the government of Gondor six miles north of the Pelargir, but no others were missing from there or anywhere else any had heard tell of. Their uniforms had not been found, nor their weapons. A letter had been delivered to Ecthelion by a messenger from Lebennin, a letter reportedly written in Thorongil’s distinctive hand, in which he resigned his commission, explaining that he had received information he was needed on the business of his own people, that his uncle who had seen to the welfare of his kindred had been killed along with several others close to him, and that he must return to the needs of those who had depended on the leadership of his uncle; but that when the time was right and if the people of Gondor would accept his return, he would come in the future at need to fight again with her forces.
Reports from Eriador in the ruins of Arnor indicated that a major push by legions of orcs backed by forces from what had been Angmar had cut deeply into the territory of the Northern Dúnedain, and that it appeared that several of the commanders of the Rangers had been killed. Was this Thorongil related to them? It certainly appeared probable. Virubat considered the name Thorongil had used in Rohan and Gondor--the Eagle of the Star; and star cloak brooches were the symbol of the Northern Dúnedain Rangers.
It had been believed that Arvedui of Arthedain had left no living heir; yet that had proven false. Far more recently it had been reported that Arathorn’s son had died of fever when still little more than a babe in arms. Could that, also, have been misreported? Certainly a young commander of what appeared to be an appropriate age had taken over the forces of the Rangers of Eriador some years back, and had coordinated with forces elsewhere throughout what had been Arnor. No one had seen this commander for some time in the field--not in the Northlands, at least, although his dispatches had continued to be circulated and a few had eventually fallen into the hands of Virubat’s agents. His dispatches within Eriador were written consistently in Tengwar lettering, were written in a clear, scholarly hand, and signed always with a distinctive A glyph.
The dispatches and letters of the Captain Thorongil, on the other hand, had always been written in Westron lettering and signed with the entire name. Again the writing was always clear and well educated, but could not be identified as having come from the same source as the dispatches of the unnamed Northern commander.
Virubat’s apparent smile was definitely only one-sided at the moment. If the unnamed commander in the North was indeed the son of Arathorn, and if he was also he who had been known in Rohan and Gondor as Thorongil, it did not speak well for the future. Sauron was not pleased with the intelligence he’d received, and the Nazgul and the Mouth of Sauron were letting it be known that all efforts were to be put into effect to identify precisely who this Thorongil was, and the parentage of the commander in Eriador. Specific demands had been made to seek out information as to what had become of a woman named as Gilraen, reported to have been the wife of Arathorn, as well as what children she’d given birth to during and since her marriage to her late husband. Information was also desired regarding any children born to Rangers known as Gilthorn and Halbaleg.
The side of his mouth which truly responded to Virubat’s mood was distinctly frowning. Why he should always be the one to find out the information desired by Mordor he had no idea. Why didn’t Sauron send one of his own agents, or even one of the Nazgul north to learn what he wished to know? Virubat had none who could pass for a member of the Northern Dúnedain at his disposal; and in Bree, where his people might be accepted as travelers, no one seemed aware of the fact the Rangers who traveled through the region were the descendants of Númenor. No, Virubat was not happy.
Then there was the worry that the folk of Gondor or Arnor might send spies here to Harad, another of the observations contained in the dispatch he was perusing. Word had come to Mordor and Umbar that apparently at least one individual from Gondor had been reported as having visited with the d'Bouti clan. With decision, Virubat turned to the messenger who'd brought the notes and who now stood by as he read.
"Let those keeping watch at the harbor at Risenmouthe keep watch for any carrying tokens of stars," he commanded. "If any from Gondor or Arnor should seek to spy out our activities here in Harad, they will undoubtedly carry such tokens, as brooches for cloaks, as decorations for weapons, in rings or pendants. As for the rest, return here tomorrow, and I will have a response ready then."
The messenger bowed deeply, murmured, "As you command, my lord," and left.
Not having further reply he could make now to the correspondence he’d just been pondering, Virubat decided he would now go the the palace of the Farozi. True, no word had as yet reached him from his spies in the Farozi’s household that the reports had yet come that Sohrabi had died in a hunting accident, but it was only a matter of time. He carefully packed the dispatches into the secured chest in which he kept such things, locked it, then secured it with the closing spell he’d received from one of the lesser servants of the Eye. He then clapped his hand to summon his body servant.
A tall figure entered the room and approached him with the silence Virubat had always required of his servants and slaves, then bent low in obeisance. “Bring my blue court robe--I will be attending on the Farozi.”
He turned to the stand on which he usually laid his personal effects when disrobing or changing and began to set his belt and knife and such there, then realized that the servant had made no move toward the dressing room where his court robes hung. Angry, he turned on the Man. “What do you wait for, cur? Did I not give you an order?”
Only then did he realize that this was not any of his slaves that he knew--this was a stranger he’d never seen before, a tall Man with a tanned, shaven face, and eyes of a clear, piercing grey. Those eyes were now examining him dispassionately. “I do not believe you will need your blue court robes,” the intruder said in a low voice in slightly accented Haradri. “You will not be attending on the Farozi right now, after all.” Realizing a rather deadly knife was now at his throat, Virubat backed up against the wall.
The ensuing struggle was brief. A blow to Virubat’s temple from the hilt of that deadly dagger stunned him, and shortly he was bound with his own belt and gagged with one of his own head scarves. One of the voluminous robes he kept to wear when he was going abroad in disguise through Risenmouthe or Thetos was brought out of his dressing room and pulled over him, with face cloth pulled across his mouth to shield the fact he was gagged. He was then guided out of the room and to a side door. The guard of that door lay sprawled on the gravel, as did both assigned to the side gate. Outside was a rather fine horse, but not one of his. Virubat was lifted easily onto the saddle, but his feet were bound under the horse’s belly so tightly he could not direct it. The horse was not happy with this situation, but followed the lead offered by the one robed as a bodyguard who’d taken Virubat prisoner. No one seemed to notice anything odd in the pair of them as they made their way through the streets, and certainly no one appeared to give the least attention to the one who led the horse and carried the secured chest.
A half an hour after Virubat was taken, he found himself imprisoned in a stone room with no windows in the interior of a house he did not recognize. He realized he was not going to be going home to his house here or to Umbar any time soon.