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23
A Hunt

A Hunt

That night many of those who’d stayed in the Farozi’s house, including Sherfiramun and his folk and Rustovrid’s family, returned to their own estates or homes, although Lord Ghants’pa’amon and Lord Afraim remained.

The King and those who would attend the hunt with him rose before dawn. The invitation had been extended to all the nobles, but only Faramir and Berevrion accepted from those among the Northerners. Why the King asked Peregrin Took to serve as guard alongside Hardorn no one could say, but he indicated both were to wear their mail beneath their surcoats.

Benai was concerned and privately asked to attach himself to the party, but the King disagreed. “Lord Sherfiramun is to be part of the hunt, and I wish some to be here to the protection of those remaining in the palace and city on whom I know I can depend. Who or what Sherfiramun might set in motion here I don’t know. However, I sense he is ambitious and has been developing agents. Please remain here and cooperate with King Éomer.” Reluctantly Benai agreed.

Aragorn then sought out Mablung and Legolas. “Have you your Rangers’ gear?” he asked Faramir’s former lieutenant from Ithilien.

“Yes,” came the reply.

A nod from the King, and he explained. “I do not know to what this day will come. Sherfiramun has attached himself to the hunting party, and we know he is not to be fully trusted. I would have you both slip out of the palace and the city, and watch at the edge of it. Then, if there are difficulties, we will most likely take shelter in the house where An’Sohrabi lived when he was younger, which I believe to be empty at this time.” Quickly he outlined the way that the hunting party was likely to take to the marshes of the delta, then the route from the edge of the city to the rear approach to the house, and asked them to keep a surreptitious watch on the happenings. “You are to make your presence known only if you detect treachery. At first signal only that you see it; interfere only if it is obvious we need assistance or if one who proves untrue seeks to flee. Any who proves treacherous I wish taken alive if at all possible. Is this understood?”

With quiet acquiescence, Man and Elf went to dress themselves appropriately, drew their bows and quivers from the weapons chest, and went to slip past the guards at the gate.

He then met quietly with those of Gondor and Arnor remaining in the palace. At any sign of untoward moves toward their quarters they were to get the women and children, Ruvemir, Isumbard, and Owain out of the palace compound and to the temple of Amon in West Thetos. All were to carry their arms and be prepared to use them. He then advised Éomer, Lothiriel, Avrieth, and Éowyn of the orders he’d given his own folk, and let them take precautions as they saw fit.

Aragorn dressed in his blue riding leathers over silk shirt and trousers. When Arwen raised her brow in unspoken question, he sighed. “If anything is to happen, this will offer me the only protection I can be expected to carry for my person. However, I will carry a long knife as well as a less obtrusive dagger. I do not wish to be totally unable to defend myself.”

Faramir and Berevrion, seeing the King’s garb and realizing he had a reason for such a choice, followed suit, Faramir donning the leathers he wore when he scouted abroad amidst the Rangers of Ithilien, and Berevrion in the green leathers of Eriador. All carried a hidden knife as well as a displayed long one, and their bows and quivers. With Hildigor and Damrod attending Berevrion and Faramir as Hardorn and Pippin attended the King, all were as prepared as could be expected. Aragorn sighed in relief, and led the way to where they and their guards partook in a morning meal with the Farozi, Prince Ankhrabi, and the others staying in the palace who’d chosen to attend before they set out for the hunt.

*******

Merdirion watched after as he saw Sherfiramun out of his house to join the hunting party which was to leave the palace soon. The situation was excellent--the King of Gondor and the heir of Sohrabi both would be attending, as would, he understood, the Steward of Gondor and the envoy from Arnor as well. The King of Rohan was remaining in the city; but that was not a great problem. Reportedly he utilized no taster, and one could always resort to poison.

They were foolish, these Northern Lords--gathering so many great ones here in the capitol of one of the traditional enemies of their lands. And bringing their heirs and wives as well? It was a situation ripe for exploitation!

He’d found the disappearances of Maruset and Virubat so many years ago to be the boost up he’d needed to move from officer of guards on the docks of Risenmouthe to become one of the primary agents of Mordor within Harad. He’d found in himself a degree of cunning and ruthlessness of which he’d been only mildly aware before his promotion; and he’d gone from being one who had felt helpless to promote the ambitions of his own land to one of the best suited to assist Umbar to gain control over the rest of the world.

Since his nephew Landrion’s capture and death a few years back there’d been few left in Umbar itself with the courage and canniness needed to wrest control from Lord Marcipor. True, Merdirion was not yet placed to take the rule of Umbar itself into his hands, but he could possibly take over Harad; and by destroying the rulers of Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan and taking their heirs and queens into his own hands he could disrupt and then control the rule of those lands as well. He did not truly wish the crowns of these lands, for he’d seen the uses of puppet rulers as had been practiced by Mordor. Once he was the power behind the thrones of Harad, Gondor, and Rohan and held control of their armies and cavalry and the fleets of Gondor and Harad, he could then move on Umbar itself, barricade its harbor, capture and dispose of Marcipor, and take the Lordship there. And, as long as he controlled the education and training of the rightful young heirs for the lands of Harad, Rohan, Gondor, Arnor, and Ithilien, he would have no problem bringing Umbar to control of all of Middle Earth that mattered.

He rubbed the ring he wore on his hand. Once it had carried his orders to him, and allowed him to report back on what was being done in Harad and Far Harad. Now that link had been severed; but still he felt powerful with it on his hand, knew that it somehow amplified his thoughts, aided him to find the means to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to him. One of the Nazgul had brought it to him, offered its aid in dealing with the Haradrim, and he’d accepted it. At times he’d regretted doing so, but no more. He allowed himself a small smile at the idea of what would be happening over the next few days. He’d not been able to dispose of An’Sohrabi as he had An’Ma’osiri; but the Farozi was now elderly and no longer physically capable as he once was. Once his heir was dead, it should prove easier to gain control of Ma’osiri and Amon’osiri and begin their proper training as decadent sycophants to Sherfiramun and himself.

He then sent for his personal slave and sent him to bring him word of the other forces he was beginning to set into place. They should all be ready tomorrow, at which time he’d move on the palace itself. Sherfiramun had his orders and the men at his back to see to the deaths of all from the palace in the hunting party. The next two days would be crucial to his plans.

*******

The Farozi examined the worn hunting bow and quiver carried by the King of Gondor and Arnor with interest. “These have seen much use,” he commented.

The Lord Elessar smiled noncommitally. “I have carried them on hunts most of my life,” he said. “The bow was made first for my father, and brought to my foster father to be held in trust for me after his death. One of my brothers wrought the quiver for me when I was fifteen.”

“You are a good hunter?”

“For my people, yes.”

“The leather garb is rather formal for hunting gear.”

Now the smile broadened. “Again, I still possess the leathers I wore as a Ranger of Eriador; but my beloved wife objects to me wearing them, considering them so well worn as to be disreputable. She would not allow me to bring them with me.”

An’Sohrabi and Ankhrabi laughed openly. The Farozi shook his head with his mirth. “So my late wife would have done as well. So often favorite kilts or cloaks would disappear, and all the royal orders in the world would not effect their return.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Aragorn said.

“She died of age four years past. We were never as close as you are to your queen, yet she was a good mate for me. And our son is one of whom to be very proud.”

“Between you there was but one child?”

An’Sohrabi’s face became saddened. “There were two more born, but our daughter died of a disease of the lungs when she was yet a child. Ankhrabi’s brother died seven years ago, in an uprising begun near Nestor. He left no child, and his wife has entered the temple of Neryet in West Thetos.” He looked at his remaining son. “Ankhrabi was the youngest of the three--and he is a wise one.” He looked at the King. “I found myself wishing we had your skills here as we watched Bhatnefiri sicken. None in Harad was able to aid her more than a little.”

“I grieve for your losses, my Lord An’sohrabi.”

“Your peoples have also known their own, my lords. You lost your father when you were yet a small child; Prince Faramir here lost his brother to orcs; from what we have heard of the Shire miscarriages appear to be common there....”

Lord Berevrion nodded. “The year our Lord Aragorn here--” with a nod toward the King, “--was taken to the safety of Rivendell there was a great pestilence across our lands. It killed so many, and almost took him as well. It was due to his known severe illness that it was believed so long he had indeed died.”

“You are certain he was the child?”

Lord Hardorn looked to his cousin for permission to speak. At a nod from his King he said, “We are certain. My father was one of the few privy to the knowledge of his survival, as were certain other lords of our people. They made regular visits to Imladris to check on him as he grew and reached maturity. There is no doubt. Also, his mother remained with him over the years of his childhood and youth.

“And then, there is the testimony of his possessing the gift of healing, which has ever been the sign of the rightful heirs of Elendil, and before him of the great Lord Elros Tar-Minyatar of Númenor--the gift Lord Elros shared with his brother.”

Faramir nodded solemnly. “So it was that our people in Gondor accepted him as our rightful King, for he healed so many in the wake of the battle of the Pelennor--including me.”

“Also, I was able to pass unscathed through the Paths of the Dead and command the army found there, to wrest control of the Palantir from Sauron himself, and both Anduril and the Elessar stone answer to me. All of these are signs by which the rightful heir of Isildur would be known,” Aragorn added.

“And glad I am for it, Lord King,” the Farozi responded. “Obviously your own peoples find you worthy. There is no greater praise than that.”

He straightened. “How I wish I were yet agile enough to move quietly among the marshes with you. I pray you have a pleasant hunt, and that nothing disrupt it. And, that if ought does,” he added, “you are prepared to deal with it.”

The King stood up, smiled at his host, and bowed deeply; and followed by the rest of his folk prepared for what was to come.

*******

An’Sohrabi had also given quiet orders for increased guard in his house, which Amonrabi saw deployed carefully and judiciously about the palace and grounds. The Farozi then invited the King An’Éomer to join him to learn how to play jackals and hounds, and was secretly pleased when he realized his guest wore his sword as he joined him.

*******

The hunting party was near to the delta channels when they were joined by Lord Sherfiramun accompanied by five of his officers armed with long knives, and bows and darts a bit more substantial than bird bolts, or so Aragorn and Ankhrabi both noted. They pretended they’d not caught this detail, but both stiffened enough for their own folk to notice, increasing the wariness they already felt. As Aragorn noticed a particular movement of wind through a stand of palms near the beginnings of the marshlands, he made a motion of his hand which during the quest had become recognized as indicating the need to watch abroad. Trusting Legolas to understand the signal, he followed as the party entered the marshes.

But when Sherfiramun would have had them turn right, the King indicated he wished to go left and cross the nearer channel to a marsh which was more difficult to approach. “We are more likely to find ducks further in,” he said in the soft murmur of a good hunter. Reluctantly Sherfiramun shrugged and acquiesced, particularly as Ankhrabi agreed with the foreign King.

Ankhrabi was pleased with his companions from the North, for they obviously were all accomplished hunters and trackers, moving soundlessly, obviously familiar with the ways of moving amongst marshes. Only the small Hobbit captain seemed uncomfortable, yet he moved soundlessly and surely enough, following the steps of his Lord. The Haradri nobles who had chosen to come as well were all far less adept than the Northerners at moving quietly and surely. He gave a swift smile to the Lord An’Elessar, who nodded briefly in return, obviously keeping alert to all sides.

They found a small flock of ducks swimming in one of the broader shallow pools, and reassured his back was being watched, Ankhrabi pulled from his belt a couple of throwing sticks; and giving a call to rouse them to flight he let the sticks fly, one after the other, felling a bird with each. One of his servants then waded out to retrieve sticks and birds, bringing them to his master with a smile of triumph.

A few quiet words of congratulation, and the King turned to lead them further into the maze until they quietly approached another pool where six birds floated and dabbled, one contentedly preening itself. With a nod from Ankhrabi that his folk would be granted this pool, the King drew an arrow and prepared it, as did the other two Lords with him. Damrod, at a nod from the Prince, picked up a reed and threw it into the pool, at which the ducks rose. Three fell, each pierced by the arrow of one of the three Northerners. At a sign from the King, they’d each drawn a second arrow as soon as the first flew, though none yet nocked his. Pippin waded this time to get the prey, and Lord Faramir took them, removed the arrows and made certain each was dead, then slipped a cord over their feet and hung them from his belt.

Sherfiramun was this time granted the right to lead them to another pool, but he couldn’t lead them where he’d originally intended, so far off his intended track had they already gone. This time the other Haradri nobles were granted the right to hunt. An ibis waded through this pool alongside three ducks; Sherfiramun readied his throwing sticks as did the two others; one duck fell and the rest flew to safety, none touched by Sherfiramun’s weapon.

An odd bird call was heard, but none of the Haradri save Ankhrabi seemed to notice; he realized that at a quiet signal from the King the Northern guards were moving apart. Only Captain Peregrin stayed near his Lord, who had moved more to the side of the party, closer to Sherfiramun.

They went on to another pool, and again the right to hunt it was granted the Haradri nobles. Again a single duck was felled, its wing broken by a throwing stick.

They were moving toward another pool when the King stopped, signed all to stay still. He looked at the tracks in the mud, then turned to the others. “Crocodile,” he said shortly. He looked about, then followed the tracks intently until they neared a bank to one of the channels, then stopped. He pointed with his arrow, and all could see it, a great long brute at least eighteen hands in length. Captain Peregrin looked at it, momentarily fascinated with horror, then turned back to his wary watch on his Lord. The King led them then away, then indicated another Haradri noble should choose the way to go.

A second foreign bird call, nearer this time, and the King’s party again moved apart, seemingly casually, yet their guard actually more intense in the eyes of the aware Ankhrabi. They had scouts posted, he realized, and signals already arranged.

They were coming up on another shallow pool in which a single rough log floated, and the King pulled the unwary noble leading the way back by the shoulder, then thrust out a hand to stop Pippin from going forward. The log appeared to be drifting with the current, until they realized the current actually flowed the other way, that it was actually another of the crocodiles. Aragorn quietly pointed out the spoor of the animal, where it had come through the reeds and slipped into the pool, then indicated they ought to go the other way.

Again Ankhrabi was aware of how quiet all of the Northerners were compared to his own people, and remembered how his father used to complain about overheavy steps. When asked if he was a good hunter, the King had indicated he was. Well, obviously he had not spoken vainly. He was seeing the tracks of the crocodiles when Ankhrabi’s own people, who ought to recognize them, didn’t notice, and he appeared to be hunting his own prey right now.

At last they approached a pool that was apparently clear of the crocodiles, one in which a mated pair of ducks and a second hen drifted, and the King, Faramir, and Berevrion again started forward with their arrows already at the string, when a signal from one of Sherfiramun’s Men was given, and they started to raise their weapons. A whistle, and the leader of the small troop suddenly dropped his sword, an arrow standing in his shoulder. Meanwhile the three hunters had turned and now each held his bow aimed at one of those who’d accompanied Sherfiramun, and their guards held their own weapons ready, Captain Peregrin Took holding his sword at the Haradri lord’s own belly. The King said in a voice of deadly calm, “I would not move, any of you. If you raise your weapons you will rue it. Drop them--now.”

Sherfiramun’s face was pale as he let his sword drop--only he was reaching beneath his arm for the dagger hidden there when he found an arrow in his hand, and stopped in shock.

One of the remaining three Men had made a show of dropping his sword, but then was reaching forward with one of his darts and thrust it at Ankhrabi, wounding his side. It was like being burned with a brand, and Ankhrabi dropped his own drawn dagger as he clutched at the wound. “Poisoned!” he managed to gasp out. A move from one of the Northerners caused the soldier to pull back, but he’d drawn a dagger and was moving on one of the other Haradri nobles. Pippin leapt between him and his intended victim, his sword already in play. The action was fast and fierce--suddenly the knife was flying through the air, accompanied by three severed fingers, and landed in the pool.

The ducks had flown immediately on the first noise from the hunters, and throughout the marshes and channels round about birds had burst upwards, crying the alarm.

Hardorn had taken on a second individual, and had him disarmed and down on the ground with his sword at the Man’s throat at about the same time Pippin’s opponent was clutching at his maimed hand.

Damrod brought forth a coil of light line from his belt, and between himself and his lord they soon had the six Men disarmed and bound. Hardorn had given the red bag he’d carried over his shoulder to the King, who was bringing out bandages, and instructing one of the Haradri lords to bind the hand of the one who’d lost fingers to Pippin, and the shoulder of the captain. Pippin himself broke off the arrow through Sherfiramun’s hand and pushed the remains of the shaft through it, and taking bandages from the King’s bag packed it to stop the bleeding, bound it tight.

Aragorn himself was working over the Haradri Prince. Hardorn was now standing over the soldier who’d wounded Ankhrabi, demanding in accented Haradri to know what poison had been used.

“Asp venom,” he finally gasped out.

The King grew pale. “We must get him back to the city immediately,” he said. He sucked on the wound and spat out the blood to remove what he could of the poison, hastily bandaged it, then indicated Berevrion and Lord Ghants’pa’amon should carry the wounded Prince between them. The rest of the guards and those lords who were sufficiently armed saw to it that Sherfiramun and his Men were placed in a line and roped together with a second roll of rope brought forth by Hardorn, then prepared for the journey back to the city. “Is the house in which your father once lived now inhabited?” asked the King of Ankhrabi.

“Not at this time,” Ankhrabi murmured. “My brother dwelt there until his death.”

“Then we shall go there rather than the palace now. We know not what other mischief these and the others who sent them might have set into play. Let us go.”

The King set the route for the rest to follow, a different one from that they had used in entering the delta marshes. They came out some distance from where they’d entered them and took a sheltered route through fields of cotton plants back to the outskirts of Thetos and through a couple of quiet streets to the alley which led to the back of An’Sohrabi’s youthful estate. The King let them into the stable from the rear, saw it closed and barred behind them, led the way across the court to a door. It was barred, but Lord Hardorn had it unfastened in short order, and they entered in.

Aragorn led them through the place until he found a bed chamber still with a bed and other furnishings in it. “We will take him in here. Hardorn, did you note the well in the courtyard behind the house?”

“Yes, Aragorn.”

“Fetch me water. Do any of you know the ways of this house?”

One of those who’d served as Ankhrabi’s guard said, “I served his brother for a time.”

“Take Captain Peregrin to the kitchens. Find fuel to heat the water, and basins to heat it in. I will need water heated to near boiling as quickly as possible. Then, is the wine closet still off the second sitting room?”

“Yes, my Lord.

“Untie the ropes about their necks, and secure the prisoners within it--after they have been gagged. If possible, secure each to a separate wine stand or post.”

“You know of it?”

“I have used it for similar purposes in the distant past, Captain.”

The Haradri guard gave the King a long look, then bowed with more respect than he’d shown before.

Lord Afraim had been part of the group, and as with those from the North carried a long knife in his belt. “You expected an attack today?”

“Did the Farozi ever tell you how he and I met, my Lord?”

“No, Lord An’Elessar.”

“It was the day on which Lord Maruset was taken by the crocodile. Maruset had made a point of inviting the younger son of An’Horubi on a trip to hunt duck alone with him in the channels of the delta. He allowed the young Prince to begin to make his approach to a pool of ducks near the edge of the channels, and disarmed him of all save his throwing sticks. To purposely heighten his fear, he began to tell him what would happen to him, of the death he would die to the glory of the Death Eater. The boasting was overheard--by me. I will tell you what few others know--he was already dead when the crocodile found him. He and I fought, with daggers. I killed him, left his body for the crocodiles and then came away with the youth here.

“I do not trust any who served among the armies of Mordor, my Lord. Did any of the others here today serve so?”

“No, Lord King.”

“Good, then.”

The Prince was now stripped to his loin cloth, and the King carefully undid the bandage he’d hastily wrapped about him in the marshes, took out the packing. He examined the wound carefully.

Damrod had remained in the back courtyard as the rest had entered the house. He now entered the house and found the room in which the others were gathered. “Prince Legolas has come near, Lord King,” he said in Westron. “He says seven others were sent after us in the hunting party, and you did well going as you did through the marshlands, for they could not find you that way. Mablung led them into the channels, and one has fallen to the crocodiles. Mablung will soon lead the remaining six this way, and into the stable. He asks we have an ambush ready when they arrive.”

The King translated. The Haradrim straightened and looked to one another. The King looked to Afraim. “Will you lead the ambush, Lord?”

The Man’s smile was twisted with fury. “Oh, yes, I will.” He signed to the rest who were properly armed, and they went out.

Lord Ghants’pa’amon was left to aid the King of Gondor and Arnor as he worked over the Prince of Harad. The King looked up. “Please hand me my healer’s kit.” After it was handed to him he set out several items in readiness, including a couple of leaves from a packet and some other herbs and a roll of tools with a fine curved needle threaded with silk thrust through it.

“Can you find an oil lamp and light it for me? If you have no striker and cannot find one, Captain Peregrin will have his with him and can light it for you. I will need it set there----” and he indicated a place nearby.

A lamp sat in a niche on the wall, and it still held oil, although the oil was much congealed. The Haradri found the striker and soon had it lit, although the light it threw was fitful. The King held his hand over the flame until it steadied, then turned back to Ankhrabi, finally setting both hands over the wound, beginning the ancient invocation he’d been taught, let his fingers feel deep....

The guard brought in a basin of water, and the King came back present, rolled the leaves between his palms and blew on them, then dropped them into the steaming water. He took some of his bandaging material and dipped it into the water, drew it out and wiped the wound with it; then after dropping the cloth back into the basin he again laid his hands over the wound and focused his attention on it.

The Haradri Prince began to sweat, and suddenly there was a drainage from his side. The King’s face grew paler and more intent. For a moment there was an expression of great pain on Ankhrabi’s face, then an easing. Not knowing what else to do, Ghants’pa’amon took the cloth which the King had used, wrung it out, and began to clean away the effluent from the wound. The air of the room which had been stuffy now was clean, smelling of the sweetness of jasmine and the lotus blossom and the cleansing, life-giving scent of the River Risen as it flowed through their land. Again Ghants’pa’amon rinsed the cloth and sought to cleanse away more of the bloody fluid from Ankhrabi’s side--and he realized that the wound was closing even as he washed it. He pulled back, shocked.

Ankhrabi relaxed, and his eyes opened with surprise and consideration. He was beginning to smile, and took a deep breath. At last, with a deep sigh the King of Gondor straightened, dropping his hands to his side. He, too, took a series of deep breaths, then let all out. He leaned over the Prince, looked into his eyes. “How do you feel?” he asked, his voice particularly deep and gentle.

“Well, my Lord An’Elessar,” Ankhrabi said, his voice glad and puzzled at the same time.

With a nod, the King started to take up the cloth again, saw it was fouled, looked a question at the lord kneeling at his side, then smiled. “You cleansed his side?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Very good.” He rolled his shoulders back to ease them, tilted back his head, his eyes closed. Finally he straightened, once more set his hand over the already healing wound and let his fingers again feel deep----

He smiled. “You should be well now, my Lord,” he said. “I should cleanse you.” He straightened and called out, “Pippin?”

After a moment the Hobbit guard peered into the room. “Yes, Strider?”

“Another basin of water, please, and some clean cloths if you can find them. I don’t wish to use up all my bandage material on cleansing.”

“Yes, my Lord--I’ll bring it right away. It’s almost at a boil now.” He disappeared down the hall, then came back with a new basin and some cleaning cloths he’d found.

The King carefully cleaned Ankhrabi’s entire body, and asked the lord beside him to see if he could find a sheet or blanket to wrap about the Prince as he recovered. In a low chest Ghants’pa’amon found a blanket of soft wool, which the King accepted with thanks.

Once wrapped in the blanket, Ankhrabi smiled again. “I cannot believe how well I feel,” he commented.

“You responded quickly.” The King rose to his considerable height, and stretched. Then he sighed. “You should do well enough here until you feel you can rise. Now I must see to what is happening elsewhere. Pippin, stand guard over the Prince.” Accepting the bow of the Hobbit, he bowed to the two Men and left the room.

******

The Men of Merdirion followed the shadowy figure through the fields outside Thetos. Almost they lost him, but then Pelseti spotted him slipping into a quiet street on the edge of the city. They found a scrap of fabric caught between two bricks indicating he’d gone over a low wall; then saw him peering back around a building from a narrow alley to see if any followed him. When they looked down a second alley they saw him struggling to open the doors of a nobleman’s stable. Unable to force it open, he leapt up and pulled himself up and over the wall--a much higher one than before. They had him now! No one now lived in that house, and he couldn’t get out of the back courtyard, for the house filled the whole of the space within the walls. They had him--if they themselves could get in.

He’d led them quite the chase, and had lost them Argeb’rabi as they followed him through the pool where the floating log had proven to be a crocodile instead. Tutankhrabi as leader of this small squadron intended to have him--if for no other reason then for the loss of a good soldier. Pelseti was good with locks, and came forward to check the manner in which the stable before them had been secured. He frowned in concentration as he worked the point of his knife into the gap and lifted. The bar inside was poorly seated, it appeared, and was easily lifted and the doors swung open. They slipped inside, to one side or the other where they wouldn’t remain silhouetted against the light, then set out to make their way out the further door where they hopefully could find their quarry.

Only once the last of them was inside the barn and away from the door first the door behind them swung shut, and then the one before them. Caught in the dark, they froze. A voice said softly, “If you will drop your weapons, all may yet be well with you.” The flap of a dark lantern was lifted, and the glare of its light fell on them....

A whisper of noise beside him, and Tutankhrabi turned to find a swordhilt descending on him, and he fell, stunned. The rest were as easily overcome, and when at last Tutankhrabi roused fully he found himself seated on the floor of the stable, his arms tied behind him to a support post. The door to the inner court was now open, and a tall figure now strode into the stable through it. He looked at the six figures secured now to posts or stable doors, appeared to be counting.

“All of them?” he asked in Haradri.

“Yes, Lord An’Elessar,” grunted the voice of another of the stable’s occupants.

“Good. Strip them completely, and bring their clothing inside.” He came closer, examined each in the dim light of the stable. He paused as he examined Pelseti, then again at Tutankhrabi. As he turned away, he commented, “You will have to watch that one well, for he is too clever by half. This one is their leader. Bring him into the house with the clothing if you will, my Lord Afraim.”

Afraim indicated his agreement, and those who’d ambushed the troop which had followed Mablung through the marshes of the delta and the fields set to stripping their prey with a will, leaving them without even loincloths in the end.

Two Men, one Haradri and one a Northerner, propelled Tutankhrabi across the court and into the house. Four chairs had been set facing a fifth, to which he was led. He was made to sit down and tied to the chair hand and foot. He felt at a distinct disadvantage, sitting there naked before his enemies. Then one of the Northerners who looked a good deal like the Northern Lord himself came, a carefully knotted cord in his hand, to stand beside him.

The Northern Lord took the seat at the end of the line of chairs to his left, and a second figure, younger, also darker haired and with eyes grey as the sea under storm, took the chair at the other end. Lord Afraim took the chair by An’Elessar, and Lord Ghants’pa’amon took the last one, his usually self-satisfied expression grim and determined.

“So,” Afraim said, his voice hard, “we were to die beside Ankhrabi, were we?”

Tutankhrabi took a deep breath, and set himself to withstand their questioning....

Amon had begun to fall in the sky when the questioning was over. The one with the cord had known what to do to elicit answers; and something in the voice of the King commanded other answers Tutankrabi hadn’t intended to give. A great deal had been learned from him, including the fact the Umbari who dwelt in Sherfiramun’s house had been the one who had commanded all.

All now looked to Afraim. He in turn looked at the Northern Lord. “You may command in this,” Lord Afraim said.

“You are one of the commanders of the forces of Harad, not I,” the Northern Lord returned. “You command and hold the authority here, my lord, although you have allowed me to lead in that which I know best. Here you know the mind of the Farozi better than I. What is the right thing to be done with these?”

Afraim rubbed the side of his nose as he considered, looking back at the one before them. “Let them be kept until they can come before the Farozi’s justice. The intent was obviously to slay us, particularly Ankhrabi and yourself and those in your party, An’Elessar. Certainly had you not been wary as you obviously were, most or all of us would have fallen or been taken.

“I must assume the intent was to destroy the leadership of your people, after which an attack would be made on the Palace of the Farozi to sieze power over all. Those of your people who did not come on the hunt are there, including the wives and heirs of yourself, Lord Faramir here, Lord An’Éomer, and Lord Berevrion as well as the children of Ankhrabi. It would give Merdirion much leverage should he hold them in his power. He would not need to sieze the crown of any of our lands if he were to make himself regent for all the younglings; and with him in command of their raising, he would make certain all were suitably decadent that they would only pass on his laws and judgments and strictures so that in the end he would be ruler of all in all but name. So it was that the Death Eater held us in control for many lives of Men.”

The others nodded. The King of Gondor looked at the Man before them all, then back to Afraim. “I fear you are right, and if so then the palace may well be under siege as we speak. We have left our folk forewarned, however, and I suspect that once again Merdirion and Sherfiramun have underestimated the astuteness of An’Sohrabi. He has not remained Farozi this long without having developed great sensitivity to intrigue. I suspect he already has defenses set to counter moves against him, for that I was ready for treachery was not lost on him when we left his presence this morning. A quick learner he was as a youth when I saw him last; he will not be taken without a significant struggle likely to be highly damaging to the power base of his opponent. And Lord Amonrabi is at his side, one his enemies have always overlooked.” He gave a small smile.

“Obviously the next step for us will be to gain control over this Merdirion. In order to do this, we will need to know how the household in which he hides himself is structured. Sherfiramun can aid us in this, I think. Another chair, think you, my Lords?”

Sherfiramun blinked as the door of the room in which he and his fellows were secured was opened and the light of day fell inside. They came first to him, and untying him from the ring in the wall to which shelves for wine were intended to be secured, they drew him to his feet and led him out, into the presence of what was obviously a tribunal that he’d never thought to face.

Tutankhrabi sat naked in a chair, bound to it hand and foot, gagged, his entire aspect drawn and tired. Sherfiramun was settled next to him and bound as he was. He began to shake with terror. And the questioning began.

Afterward the King tended briefly to his hand, then sent him back to the closet and had him again secured. The leader of his troop and the other who’d been injured in the struggle in the marshlands were brought out, questioned in their turn and then given attention for their wounds, and they, too were once again gagged and returned to the small stone room and again secured. It appeared no one would aid them more than that.

Pelseti found himself goaded to his feet. Without any word to him they changed his bonds, raised his hands over his head so that he all but hung from them, secured to a loop above him in a manner from which he could be expected to escape only with greatest difficulty. And the golden-haired archer opposite did not take his eyes from him long enough to allow any escape at all, his bow kept at the ready with an arrow loosely nocked. Pelseti stood, his breathing forced to be shallow by his posture. For the first time since the ambush as they entered the barn he began to fear his cleverness would not aid him to effect his own escape.

And between them Lord Afraim, Lord Hardorn, and Lord An’Elessar began to plan how they would enter the estate of Sherfiramun to gain custody of Merdirion of Umbar.

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