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Old 01-08-2004, 03:03 PM   #34
Child of the 7th Age
Spirit of the Lonely Star
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The piercing rays of the sun coated the buildings and alleyways of Umbar like a thick woolen blanket surrounding the city. It was mid-afternoon, the time when most residents wisely remained inside under walls and roofs that could shield them from the stifling heat and glare. The streets were bathed in silence, the markets empty. Only a servant or two trudged unwillingly about on business, hauling jugs of water and supplies, or engaging in other errands at the whim of some great lord. Rich or poor, few voluntarily ventured out at this time of day when the air hung so oppresively heavy that it was difficult to catch one's breath.

In a few hours, with the approach of early evening, this scene would dramatically alter. The quiet streets would waken as elegant villas and sqaulid shacks threw back their doors, and residents spilled out onto the streets. Crowded throngs of citizens would go about their business or pleasure often till late into the night. By its very nature, Umbar was a city of darkness. Only at night, or in the few hours immediately following dawn when many still lay abed, could a resident of Umbar conduct public business in reasonable comfort.

A half-shadowed figure stood beside the open casement in the Common Room at The Cat's Paw, a small and ancient hostelry that was tucked away on a forgotten lane far from the main thoroughfares criss crossing the city. The figure at the window instinctively drew back so that she could watch those passing in front of the Inn, while still making it difficult for them to catch a clear glimpse of her own face and figure. The woman appeared to be young, no more than twenty years of age, with masses of cascading black curls framing a well-tanned face and alert brown eyes that were highlighted with flecks of gold. Short and lithe, she sported leather boots and a scarlet pelicon elaborately embroidered with silhouettes of birds worked in golden thread. This was worn over a pair of long pants that flared out almost like a skirt, an outfit in which she could sit astride a horse with ease but still manage to blend into the finest establishments of Umbar. Tucked deep under her belt within a leather sheath, she carried two jambiyas, the traditional doubled-edged curved daggers of the southern peoples.

To her friends and family she was 'Ráma', a name that means 'Wing of the Eagle'. Those in Umbar regarded her as a well-to-do Mannish desert dweller, a representative of one of the more powerful tribes living in the region to the east. She did nothing to dispel that illusion, which was essential to her safety and that of her people. In truth, the woman was a Skinchanger, one of those rare folk who are spoken of in legend, much feared and courted by so-called normal men. She had been sent on an errand by her own tribe, those few who rejected the overall leadership of the confederated clans. Her ostensible mission was to represent her kin in their business dealings with the wealthiest families of Umbar. In this regard, Ráma could offer her customers three exceptional commodities that were much prized by those of high rank and fortune: the rare white merino sheep whose silky wool was so valued by ladies at court, the sturdy camels who could glide like ships across the deep sands, and, sweetest of all, the prized stallions and mares who ran as sure and fleet as the wind roaring across the desert.

Yet, at the moment, Ráma's mind was not on trade, nor even on the horses that she loved. She uneasily surveyed the street below, searching vainly for any sign of her kinsman who was now some two hours late. The woman's fingers drummed nervously against the window ledge as she considered what to do. For trade was only a small part of her assignment.. Her proud mother and their other kin preferred to lead lives of fierce independence and eschew any involvement with outsiders, almost like solitary eagles atop a craggy cliff. But that had become increasingly difficult. Disturbing rumors swirled through the desert. These rumors spoke not of harassment and attack on the part of Mannish clans, an all too common occurence when men awoke to the reality of Skinchangers in their midst. Rather, they spoke of a new threat from within her own people: Skinchangers who wanted to expand their influence outward and who threatened to eliminate all those refusing to give proper allegiance to the main wyrm chieftain.

These charges and concerns were not new, but lately they had taken on a more somber tone. Since her own family and kin had no intention of honoring the directives of the wyrm leader, such rumors posed a serious threat. She and Thorn had been sent to gather whatever information they could to find out what lay behind all this. In most lands to the north and west, one as young as Ráma might not have been burdened with such a task. But this was Umbar, and young ones grew up fast. Either that, or they perished from the dangers and intrigues that constantly surrounded them. Ráma knew that most young women her own age were already married, or at least have secured promises for the future. That was not an option for her. Pushing down the bitterness that threatened to resurface, she forced herself to concentrate on the immediate problem at hand.

That evening, she was expected to attend an audience at the Great Hall of Lord Falasmir as one of the traders in the area to meet with foreign shipowners from the city of Minas Tirith. The shipowners did not interest her in the slightest. But the chance to gain admission to court and pick up information was another thing. Surely she could arrive at the palace just a few hours early to make some polite inquiries as to the whereabouts of Thorn who was supposed to be tending several prized steeds that Falismar had recently purchased from her clan. Or perhaps she could even make discreet inquiries and learn something more of those strange rumors.

How she hated playing a game like this! She would rather have been free to ride out of the city and return to the wild desert lands that she loved. Only there would she find a way through to solve her personal dilemma. But that, too, was a luxury she could ill afford. Ráma pushed personal thoughts from her mind one last time and went out to saddle Kyelek, quickly making her way into the street and turning the animal's nose in the direction of the palace.

Last edited by piosenniel; 04-05-2007 at 11:34 AM.
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