“I suggest, my Lords,” the King said with a sigh, “that we see to a meal for ourselves. I will tell you that Captain Peregrin, being a Hobbit, will be able to take the ducks we have taken this morning and make a passable meal of them. Lord Ghants’pa’amon, may we send your guard out in more normal gear to the market to bring us some vegetables to eat with them? I’m certain Pippin will be willing to give him a list of what he would require. And I am certain he will have carried the cord of ring coin I gave him a few days ago so that we can pay for the provender.”
Pippin did indeed carry the coins with him in a hidden pocket the Lady Arwen had sewn into his surcoat, and he gladly contributed them to the project, along with a list of items he’d found on his thorough search of the kitchens they would need.
Fresh oil for the stove and lamps; freshly baked bread; some vegetables and fruits; flour; perhaps some rice to have with the duck (“I’m glad Frodo isn’t here so we don’t have to listen to his complaints about it,” he said with a rather sad smile which the King mirrored); some juice; something for later for dinner if they intended to remain here through the evening; something for tea? Lord Ghants’pa’amon’s guard smiled at the list, and promised he’d remember all and bring something extra. They’d found a relatively plain kilt, belt purse, and cosmetics kit in a kist in the room where Prince Ankhrabi still lay recovering; and so garbed and properly kohled, the Man slipped out through the back alley and headed for the market district.
He returned just over an hour later laden with provisions, with the report that some of the troops which had been assigned to Mordor’s interests were gathering in various places throughout the city, although none was as yet showing itself openly. Afraim’s face became stern, and he had his own Men dress down and sent them out, one to reconnoiter and the other to carry word to the desert forces to begin gathering quietly to the aid of the Farozi, carrying his signet as a token these orders indeed came from himself, and the suggestion he get a horse from the Lord Afraim’s stable from his city house to ride, if he could get to it undetected. The soldier might have been inclined not to care about city intrigues had he himself not been one of the party targeted for death this morning, and had he not listened to the interrogations of the prisoners. He now gave his salute to his commander and slipped out alongside his fellow to follow the orders given, knowing he would let the desert captains know this was a serious matter indeed, if they didn’t wish to bow to Umbar.
Noon passed and no word came from the hunting party. By mid-afternoon Isumbard was pale with strain. Then finally came word that Legolas had slipped back into the palace grounds with word for Captain Beregond and the rest, and all gathered in the sitting room assigned to their usage, Gimli’s face stiff with concern and wariness. Before the Elf would speak, however, he paused to listen, then gave a rather savage smile as he rose from where he lounged sideways on a chair. Drawing an arrow, he quietly approached a decorative panel on the wall, listened again, then shoved the tip in through a break in the pattern and thrust it rather viciously down at an angle. A muffled exclamation could be heard from behind the walls, along with a scuttling noise retreating away from the room.
“Spy hole?” asked Gimli as Legolas withdrew the arrow and checked its point.
“Apparently,” said Éomer, reaching out his hand to take the arrow and examine in turn the blood that marked it. “Whoever it was will be relatively easy to identify. Do you hear any other sign of us being watched or overheard?”
“No, my Lord Éomer.”
“Good. Then tell us what we face so we can prepare adequately.”
Lord Amonrabi had noted the passageway to the spyhole on the guest wing had been opened. Unwilling to face whoever had entered it within its confines, he sent for the captain of the Farozi’s personal troops to attend him in watching for the spy to come out. This was the son of another of An’Sohrabi’s half brothers, one who had been rescued from Maruset’s own Men as they sought to take him to one of the altars to the Death Eater. He was grim as he waited by his uncle, certainly as intent as Amonrabi himself to see who would come out.
The door opened, and Gefferel emerged, clutching at his left ear where he was bleeding. Seeing those waiting for him he froze, and was easily taken. They conducted him to a quiet room with very thick walls and no windows beyond the Farozi’s own quarters, and having stripped him to his loin cloth they left him there. After a time An’Sohrabi himself came, his face grim, accompanied by Amonrabi and another of his nephews who attended on him, to question the slave. Gefferel himself was surprised at how much he told before they were through with him.
“You will remain here,” the Farozi finally said, “until all is over and done with. The Lord An’Elessar, if he has survived--as I suspect he has--will wish to question you himself. And you will be surprised, Gefferel, how difficult it is to keep from responding to his questions.” He turned to his attendant. “Bind and gag him. See to it he is allowed to relieve himself regularly, and that he gets bread and water at intervals. But he is not to die or leave this room, and no others are to know where he is kept.”
After they returned to An’Sohrabi’s own quarters, Amonrabi paused, looking at the transcript of the interview he’d made. “The seven names he’s given here--what do we do with those?”
The Farozi looked at the scroll in his brother’s hands, his face thoughtful. Finally he suggested, “Leave Pelscarabri in place. If he were to disappear, it would be too obvious we are aware of the plot against us. Take the others one by one--find some excuse to call them away, and treat them as has been Gefferel. If you can keep them in separate rooms it might be better, although you may simply make use of the rings set into the stone of the room he is in to keep them from approaching and aiding one another.
“Set one by Pelscarabri to keep an eye on him. Let him be ordered to note every possible signal to which Pelscarabri might respond, each individual he speaks to privately. Gebankhsamun would, I think, be a good choice.”
At his brother’s acknowledgment of his orders he nodded and left to go to his dinner.
Three servants and slaves from the palace were called away from their duties, and others were set to complete their work so that no one would note they’d not returned. Two of the day guard were also separated from their fellows; and when the evening guard went on duty two did not report with them.
Pelscarabri looked up as Gebankhsamun approached him and saluted. He returned the salute, and asked, “Where is Ma’amonri?”
Gebankhsamun shrugged. “I am told that Lord Amonrabi sent an escort to Lady Ankhsenrani to bring her to the palace. The word in the house is that Lady Nefiramonrani has become convinced this day that her womb has been blessed once again, and wishes to have her sister by her this night to rejoice with her.”
Pelscarabri nodded his understanding, and was secretly pleased. To have the wife of Ankhrabi and her sister both together would make it better for his true master, he knew. Ma’amonri was known to be close to the family of Sherfiramun and had served with him among the troops sent to fight for Mordor; he was a good one to entrust with the securing of Sherfiramun’s wife.
The word that the hunting party had not returned to the city had spread throughout the palace, and many were beginning to become tense and anxious. So far as the courtiers of An’Sohrabi knew, there had been no indication of what had happened to any of those who’d gone to the delta area that day. Their own remaining royal prince was among those who were now considered missing, as well as his wife’s brother-in-law, the Northern King and two of the officials of his court, Lord Afraim and Lord Ghans’pa’amon, and those servants and guards who had attended on them.
The Lord King An’Éomer of Rohan, accompanied by Lord Amrahil to serve as translator, sought out the Farozi to learn if he had heard any news of the hunting party, only to be told that the Farozi had been advised of a difficulty with one of his personal slaves who’d been found in a compromising position, and that he needed to take care of the situation that the one he’d been wronging not slay him out of hand before they could learn how he’d managed to place himself where he ought not to have been. The Northerner had looked plainly discontented on hearing the explanation from Lord Amonrabi; but when he returned to the room where the others waited he was holding in his laughter.
“I believe they have already managed to capture the spy,” he commented after he reported what he’d been told. “Lord Amonrabi was so very careful as he explained the situation--I think the indication is that they intend to hold him until he can be questioned by Lord Aragorn.”
Benai sighed with relief. He was coming to admire the Farozi of Harad and his brother.
Those waiting in the house which had once housed Prince Sohrabi and many of his half-brethren and later his older son all agreed that the meals prepared by Captain Peregrin were excellent. Shortly after sunset the King, Lord Hardorn, and Lord Afraim all prepared to go on their quest to capture this Merdirion of Umbar.
Carefully folded into a kist that had remained in one of the rooms assigned ordinarily to servants were found several robes of the sort used by bodyguards, while Legolas had brought back with him from his visit to the palace the King’s cloak from Lothlorien and Hardorn’s Ranger’s garb as well as both Men’s swords.
Legolas had also paid a visit to the house of Rustovrid, slipping into it unseen and alerting the ambassador to the plotting which had been identified; Rustovrid had thanked him for the warning, and had set his personal guards on watch, glad these had all been proven true to him several times over the years. He sent a noble’s formal cloak and headcloth for Lord Afraim’s use, and indicated he would contact those military leaders he was certain remained true to the Farozi and see to it that they were advised of what had been learned so that their forces could help to break any siege found being placed on the palace.
Feeling properly armed and prepared, the two Northerners dressed in bodyguards’ robes and Afraim as a noble on whom the others were attending, the three intent on entering Sherfiramun’s house made their way to the waterfront. Sherfiramun had been induced to tell one detail of which his Men remained in ignorance--there was an escape tunnel from the wine closet of his house that led to the River; and he’d also told of how to find the hidden entrance from the riverbank as well as how to open the wine closet from the inside.
A small punt was found tied to a wharf near the market district, and in moments it had been appropriated and was being poled upriver to the house of Sherfiramun. The section of the bank where the tunnel was supposedly hidden was finally reached, and Hardorn disembarked to search for the opening while the others lifted the punt onto the shelving of the bank. Finally he gave a soft grunt of satisfaction and signaled the others to join him. They managed to open the way, and quietly entered in, Hardorn finding and lighting the lamp which Sherfiramun had admitted stood in a niche just inside the doorway.
They had to be careful in the last scrabble up through a trapdoor into the wine closet, and both the King and Hardorn had to assist Afraim up out of the narrow tunnel. It was crowded, the room filled with stands of sealed jars filled with wine. It was obvious that either Sherfiramun or Merdirion considered himself a connoisseur of fine wine. The King found the hidden catch that allowed them to open the door from the inside, and opened it just enough to look about. A slave was finishing cleaning the room, which appeared to be a dining room, after a meal. They waited, and at last the Man’s work was done. He left the room, carrying away with him his cleaning supplies. When they heard a door closing behind him in the distance they at last emerged, found their way out of the room.
Sherfiramun had explained that after his evening meal Merdirion would ordinarily go either to his own quarters or the library, although he would at times go out into the gardens and look out over the River as he drank his evening wine. The dining room would not be entered again after those cleaning up after the evening meal were finished, not until mid-morning of the next day; and Merdirion almost never spoke with anyone during the evening hours. Afraim and the King remained where they were while Hardorn checked the house. Lady Ankhsenrani really did not care for the Umbari officer, and without her husband present would be likely to seize on any chance to stay elsewhere, usually attending on her sister who had remained in the Farozi’s house. If she were not at home, she would undoubtedly have taken with her the five slaves who accompanied her everywhere, which would significantly help keep them from detection.
Hardorn found his quarry in the library, where he was working over a map of Middle Earth, North and South. Beside the map lay a scroll and a goblet. Once he’d identified where Merdirion was, he returned quickly to where the other two waited and informed them. The King was dressed, as was Hardorn, as a bodyguard, and he carried his cloak from Lorien along with materials to serve as gags and blindfolds rolled in the thick sash he wore about his waist over the robes he wore. They’d had their plans made; now they must find Merdirion’s personal slave. Here the King went forth quietly, found the Man as had been predicted, reading a scroll of poetry of questionable virtue in the room just off the entrance where he was to greet any with reports to make. He appeared surprised to look up and find the tall stranger beside him, and even more so when the scroll was firmly removed from his hand and laid on the small table, neatly rolled.
“Who are you?” he asked stupidly.
“I’ve come with a visitor for your master,” the unknown bodyguard said. “Lord Afraim desires to see him.”
“Lord Afraim?” The slave sounded even more stupid than he had originally.
“Yes, Lord Afraim. He wishes to know what it is that is going forward in Thetos this night. You had best take us to him.”
“But----” He was not given the chance to continue, was goaded to standing, then out of the room. Waiting nearby stood the desert lord wearing a fine cloak and headcloth, a second bodyguard behind him. They appeared to have been waiting for some time, the bodyguard with the patience of his kind, the Lord probably with none.
“My Lord?” said the slave as he bowed. “How did you get in without my knowledge?”
“Perhaps had you been less intent on your scroll....” suggested the one who’d brought him to the lord’s presence.
“You did appear very--involved,” Afraim added, improvising. He caught the flash of approval in the King’s eyes, and gave a small smile. “I’ve come to see your master.” He looked up at the one behind the slave. “You had best remain where you can watch for other messengers to Merdirion.”
The slave saw the typical salaam of respect given, and the inclination of the head from the desert lord.
“Yes, my Lord,” said the slave, confused as this was one lord he’d not thought to see approach his master. The desert troops tended to be very independent and had always shied away from past attempts by Merdirion to recruit them. Perhaps they were now finally seeing sense? He led them through the house to the library where he clapped his hands respectfully outside the door opening. “Lord Afraim, Master.”
Merdirion looked up, startled, although he quickly mastered his surprise. “Lord Afraim?” He stood. “I’d not thought to see you this night. I’d heard you were to hunt ducks this morning.”
Afraim shrugged. “I’d intended to,” he said without elaborating. “Those who bring information to me tell me that your troops are forming here and there throughout the city.”
Not certain where this would lead, Merdirion raised an eyebrow. “And why should such a thing come to pass, my Lord?”
“This is what I would wish to know, Merdirion.” The desert warrior sat heavily on the chair facing the desk.
The absence of the title was not lost on the Umbari. His tone grew more chilly. “And on what evidence do you base the assumption any troops which gather are mine, Lord Afraim? I am not Haradri and do not command here.”
“No, Haradri you certainly are not. But to imply you have not known authority in our land is--misleading. You and I both know that you served the Death Eater.”
“It is a far from respectful title for one of the gods.”
Afraim snorted. “One of the gods? Yes, he ever claimed to be such, did he not--the only one who remained in Middle Earth while the others withdrew into the West after the defeat of Seti? An immortal, certainly he was--until he sowed the seeds of his own destruction in tying his own existence and power to the work of his hands.”
Merdirion grew more wary and still. “What do you mean by that?”
“Did not Sherfiramun tell you? The Northerners related to us how it was that the great Eastern Lord was thrown down--by the destruction of his own Ring.”
Merdirion closed his hand over his own ring, his throat going somewhat dry. Forcing himself to sound disinterestedly polite, he said, “Oh, truly?”
“So they tell us. Only he lost it long ago and was diminished, rising to power again only because of the shortsightedness of our ancestors who fell to his blandishments, who desecrated the halls of Annubi and Osiri by placing his altars there alongside theirs. Had we not been so quick to seek his favor through offering the lives of slaves, captives, and eventually our own upon them, we would probably have remained free of his tyranny for a good time longer.
“Enough of that. I wish you to tell me of these troop movements and what their intent is.”
While Afraim kept Merdirion distracted, the King went through the house to the entrance to the slaves’ quarters. In keeping with many of the older homes in Thetos, not only did this one have an escape tunnel and passages between walls to allow spying upon certain rooms and the guest quarters, but its slaves’ quarters were in a wing which had but one door leading out, with a great bar which could be fastened down to keep slaves from seeking to escape in the night. Aragorn had ascertained that now both slaves and paid servants (of whom there was at least one this time of night) were retreated to that wing, and carefully he checked the seating for the bar and found it still firm and sound, then quietly dropped the bar into place, then closing the latch over it that would keep it from being released easily from inside.
He then efficiently ransacked the Umbari’s quarters, and gathered certain items into his own possession, including a mate to the small chest he’d taken with Virubat years ago. The locking spell apparently was no longer working since the fall of Sauron, which was pleasing. It had taken little enough to undo its effects before, but such a spell hadn’t been comfortable to confront.
There was also a secret drawer in the desk and a panel near the door behind which a good amount of information was found. He scanned it carefully, then paused and reread a few pages more carefully, then smiled. Placing the papers he’d found in the chest and taking it under his arm, he went back to the main door, saw it, too secured, and returned to the library. Let all wonder how it was that this one had disappeared.
The slave still stood near the door to the library, looking in, his face filled with a growing sense of discomfort as he watched the confrontation between his master and Lord Afraim.
“...And there are the thirty pikemen seen beyond the horse market, and the sixteen bowmen near the temple of Scarab.”
“I am certain I have no idea of such troops.” Merdirion’s voice was even more chilly.
“You do not? Then why was the leader of the bowmen seen coming out of this house this morning?” This was a fact wrung from the leader of the troop which had been led into ambush by Mablung, and it was one which gave Merdirion pause, as this one had not entered the house to receive his orders until after Sherfiramun had himself left the house. The idea that he was being spied upon was quite unsettling, although as was usual he continued to try to hide it.
When Merdirion chose not to answer that, Afraim gave a theatrical sigh, slapping his hands on his thighs as he stood up. “So, you do not answer? Perhaps a wise move, as you do not as yet know my plans or motivations. However, I find that I shall need for you and your slave to come with me.”
Merdirion had been surreptitiously removing the dagger he kept loosely fastened to the underside of his desk, although the manner in which he did so was not lost on either King nor the cousin who was chief of his own bodyguard. Hardorn had moved to the side of the desk and had taken out of his own belt sash the stocking he’d filled with sand. Now as Merdirion started to lean back so he could bring the dagger up and possibly into play Hardorn swung the stocking and caught the Man on the temple, at which the dagger fell from his suddenly nerveless hands, bounced off his leg, and hit the floor.
Aragorn had a dagger to the slave’s ear at the same time, a tactic he had found to be even more unnerving than holding it at an opponent’s throat. “I would not move, were I you,” he said conversationally. “You will slowly remove the rod from your waist sash and allow it to fall.” The Man did as he was told. “Now the small yet sharp knife that is there.” Paling slightly, he again obeyed. Aragorn reversed the dagger and gave a single judicious blow intended to stun only, then set the chest he carried on a nearby table, removed the slave’s belt sash and began to bind him with it.
Hardorn paused in the gagging of Merdirion to look at his cousin and King critically. “What have I told you of the foolishness of threatening an opponent while holding items in one hand?”
Aragorn laughed. “I stand appropriately chastised, my beloved cousin,” he answered as he finished binding the slave.
They soon had the two Men appropriately incapacitated, and the King left them side by side under Hardorn’s guard as he went through this room as thoroughly as he had the bed chamber. Among the items he added to those he would carry away with him were the map and scroll, and a few papers he found under the cushion of the chair in which Merdirion had sat. He then pulled that chair out into the center of the room and had Lord Afraim bring the other to face it, facing sideways away from the window. Merdirion had roused, and at a sign from the King he was prodded to his feet and made to sit down in the other chair, his bound hands in his lap, his gag removed.
It was as Aragorn sat opposite him that he saw and recognized that which his new prisoner wore on his hand. He paused as he looked on it, then gave a deep sigh. He raised his own eyes to the Man’s face, and paused again, then gave a bit of a laugh. “So,” he said, “this is why you have thought you could become a power within the world. I will tell you this--Landrion was far wiser than you, for when he was offered that which you wear now, he declined it. Not even Sauron could force another to wear such things, for it is part of their nature that the spells that bind their bearers to them require that the recipient voluntarily choose to wear them or the spells intended to bring about their corruption afterwards will have no effect. Being a lesser one than Morgoth, Sauron could not change the nature of the spells he’d learned when he’d studied the making of Rings of Power. And these lesser rings are indeed that--lesser rings than any created by Celebrimbor and his folk under the tutelage of Annatar. It was a part of the reason Sauron took that identity and sought out the Elven smiths, you know, for save in creating a master Ring and such cheats as these he could not do more. First, he was not one of the great Powers of Creation as are the Valar; second, in turning from the Creator’s will to self-worship he forfeited the ability to imbue the rings with the empathy necessary to command obedience.
“You accepted a lesser ring from a lesser power. Do not be surprised that the power you were promised proves to be lesser as well. It is not for nothing that he was ever known to the Wise as Sauron the Liar and Accursed.”
“Who are you?” asked Merdirion.
“Do you not know?” asked the Man seated across from him, dressed as a bodyguard. He removed the headcloth he wore, his dark hair, grey eyes, neatly groomed beard, and wide brow now clearly seen.
“The King of Gondor, then,” sighed the lord from Umbar.
The Lord Aragorn Elessar did not speak, merely held his gaze.
“So, the one I knew as Peredrion of Dunbar was your father?”
Aragorn laughed, throwing back his head. “You still do not understand,” he finally said, gazing steadily at Merdirion again. “‘Half-son’ is only half the translation of Peredrion--to truly translate it, it comes to ‘son of the Half-Elven’.” I am direct descendant not only of Elendil, Isildur, Valandil, and Arvedui, but of Elros and Eärendil and Elwing Peredhil. Now, how long did the descendants of Elros typically live? Far too many generations lie between myself and the founder of my line, and I will not live three hundred years or more as so many of the Kings of Númenor did--but I am already older than most other Men in Middle Earth, and am but in my middle years.”
“Then--you were Peredrion.”
“I am Peredrion--Peredrion, Aragorn, Estel, Elessar, Strider, and so many other identities.” The look he gave the Umbari lord continued to be level, then began to go stern.
“Are you going to take the ring from me?”
“Take it? If you will not take it off voluntarily as you accepted it and put it on, then it will remain on your finger until you are dead.”
“But while I wear it....”
“Maruset also believed he could not die while he wore one of the mates to that which you wear, as have two others. Maruset died by my hand, as did the other who would not remove his ring.”
“And the third?” Merdirion’s throat felt dry.
“He is dead, but at least he died free of its enslavement.”
“And what happened to the rings once they were dead? Or did the crocodile get the one which Maruset wore?”
“They have all been destroyed.”
“Do any of the great Elves remain in Middle Earth to destroy them?”
“Actually, there are a few left; but, no, I did not wait with the things. I was taught how to destroy such atrocities.” He straightened. “Now, tell me the placement of all the troops you have committed to the siege of the Farozi’s palace.”
“I will not do so.”
“So be it.” He inclined his head to the slave. “Force him to his feet. I will question him.”
Hardorn pulled the Man erect. Afraim pulled out his long knife and laid its blade to Merdirion’s throat, causing the Man to draw back, realizing he was helpless, and he listened as the slave began to spill out those details he had refused to give.