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Old 01-28-2004, 04:39 AM   #81
piosenniel
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Sting

Rôg

. . . flap . . . flap . . . flap . . . hack . . . cough . . .

Muddy bells! What had he been thinking, flying so far? And now some chitinous flying form had wedged itself in his cheek. His mouth was so dry he could barely work his tongue to push the offending morsel out. Or at least the parts which hadn’t glued to his beak when he crunched down on the insect in reflex.

‘I need a drink!’

The hawk flew a little lower, looking for a likely place to slake his thirst. He hadn’t been in the south for years. Beneath him rolled the vast expanse of the desert, a sea of blacks and greys under the night sky. Smooth hills of sand and their valleys fled by, breaking up the vast flatness of the land. And here and there clumps of scrubby growths struggled valiantly on the parched landscape.

‘What’s that?’ Rog’s eye caught some anomalous shape ahead. A tent . . . and a round dark hole not too far from it. Blessed be the Great Winged One! His birdy heart skipped a beat as the faint scent of water from the well hit him. Down he plunged, changing, a small dark shadow into the greater blackness of the inviting vortex of scents – water and mud and wet sand . . .

The little bat’s claws found no purchase against the sandy sides of the well. He slid, tumbled, down into the depths, tail over snout.

Splash!

Rog’s wings flapped frantically in the deepening water, getting him nowhere. ‘Slow down,’ he cautioned himself. ‘Just swim like you do in the air. His hands reached forward, curving themselves about a small section of water and pushed his body forward. Several more attempts brought him snout to dirt with the wall of the well. Too slippery by half. He could not climb up nor could he fly up with his sodden wings.

Above, he could hear the outriders’ small, soft voices as they spoke to one another; the sound of them bouncing back and forth against the curved sides of the well. He was growing tired, his little muscles paddling his body round and round in the confined space. With a groan, his human shape returned - the cold of the water creeping along the length of his legs, numbing him to the waist. He dog-paddled to keep himself afloat, looking up to the circle of dark sky and brilliant stars framed by the well’s rim.

‘Haloo-oo-oo!’

Rog’s voice echoed as it rose to the top and escaped into the dark expanse beyond. ‘Anyone there?’ His question was met with an unnerving silence, broken only by the rippling sound of the water as his arms and hands paddled through it. Mustering his hope, he called up loudly once more.

‘A rope . . . a rope would be nice . . .’

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Old 01-28-2004, 10:01 AM   #82
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Sting

Mithadan

The questions which leapt to Mithadan's mind as a result of Rama's warnings went unanswered as he watched the young woman's back disappear into the crowd. Her words echoed in his head. Do not trust Falasmir or the woman who walks beside him...Learn how to lose your guards. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Rama had seemingly confirmed his suspicions. Yet he was here, in part, as a diplomat on behalf of his King and under the protection of Falasmir. How could he respond to these warning without betraying Elessar's interests or insulting the lord of Umbar?

He straightened himself and scanned his surroundings. Why would Falasmir hold such a reception if he intended to harm Mithadan or his crew? Yet there was the answer to his earlier question. His first responsibility was to his ship and the men who trusted him -- his crew. He nodded almost imperceptibly and waded back out into the crowd of traders and dignitaries with his jaw set.

He was approached quickly by a middle aged man. Thin and less well-dressed than most, the trader pulled a length of cord from his pocket. "Captain," he said. "I am Belegas. I have for you a sample of our finest rope, made from the fiber of a vine which grows here. See how strong it is?" He drew a knife and sawed at it. The strands of the cord bent and gave under the blade but did not part easily. "I can deliver to you lengths of rope, or nets if you prefer, bouyed by cork at the edges. Wonderful for fishing. I have hooks of all descriptions as well..."

Mithadan smiled politely. The seafarers of Gondor, of course, had little need to buy nets and ropes from Umbar. He had no nets aboard the Star; his was no fishing vessel... But perhaps... He nodded and withdrew his purse as he began to haggle...

The evening concluded pleasantly enough. Falasmir offered a toast to "future relations with Umbar's brothers to the north." Then Mithadan and Airefalas retired to their rooms to review the invoices and bills of lading they had obtained that evening. Airefalas had done well indeed. Silks, bright cloth, spices, other light goods, all of which could be stowed easily.

"All will be delivered tomorrow?" asked Mithadan. Airefalas nodded. "Then we will visit the Star and have the crew ready to load the cargo swiftly. I want to prepare to get underway. All leaves will be cancelled so the ship leave port at the earliest chance."

"That will be good news for the men," replied Airefalas. "They are eager to be gone and have had their fill of Umbar."

"They are not alone," said Mithadan as he rubbed his eyes wearily. "I will welcome the open sea and to be on our way...safely."

"Surely my captain has not had his fill of Falasmir's hospitality?" Airefalas commented with mock surprise. "And will you not miss the company of Seft and his mates? For our protection of course..."

To his surprise, Mithadan replied with a colorful curse concerning the likely ancestors of their guards. Then he seized a cup of wine and drained it in a gulp before slamming the vessel back down on the table. "May the Valar protect us from our protectors," he growled.
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Old 01-28-2004, 05:10 PM   #83
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Silmaril

Tinar had listened to Airefalas’ account of his home city with an enthusiasm that went deeper than the mere curiosity he used to reach his goal. When he had impulsively said that he liked mountains, he had surprised himself – his only actual sighting of mountains had been long ago, on a flight with his mother. Somehow, they must have impressed him so much that the memory had remained with him, though he had not realized that until now.

However, that did not distract him so much that he answered heedlessly when Airefalas asked him about his identity. As the youngest of Wyrma’s sons, he had learned early that it was not prudent to reveal all that he thought or knew. His three brothers usually treated him with the amused tolerance that older lions might show a little cub, but he observed the embittered rivalry between them. They sought out each other’s weak points with the doggedness of a hunting hound and used them to humiliate and defeat one another. He would not give a stranger, friendly though he might be, any information which might give him an advantage over him.

“No, I am not related to Lord Falasmir,” he answered. “I am here to visit for a time and come from a people who live farther out in the desert,” he continued rather vaguely. At that moment, he was relieved to see his mother motioning to him to return. Apparently Lord Falasmir was leaving the hall with his entourage. He bowed politely, saying, “May you have a safe journey back to your home; perhaps I shall see it one day!”

“I would welcome your visit there,” Airefalas returned warmly. He watched as the young man was swept away with the courtiers and their Lord, noticing that he spoke with the stern woman. What could their connection be? he wondered idly, but soon forgot the incident.

° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° °

Now Tinar was sitting in his mother’s room, telling her all about the city of the North. He felt a boyish delight at having her all to himself and listening to him so intently. It did not occur to him to wonder why she would be so interested in a city far away that had nothing to do with them. Perhaps she was only attempting to learn more of city life; he knew how important the young desert settlement was to her. And she might be desirous of trading with the Northerners – if they were indeed no longer foes.

When he finally went to his own quarters, he was tired, yet elated after a day that had been more eventful than most that he had experienced before. He tried to remember all that had happened, but soon fell asleep. His dreams were filled with foreign lands, towering mountains, walled cities, and a white-sailed ship…

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 11:32 AM January 29, 2004: Message edited by: Estelyn Telcontar ]
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Old 01-29-2004, 04:27 AM   #84
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Sting

Gondor

There was a steaming mug of tea waiting for her when she returned. Pio pulled the jar of honey toward her and spooned a generous helping into her mug. A few sips, enjoyed in silence, and then she pulled the thin leather satchel she’d brought from her room up from the floor beside her and began pulling out the sheaves of papers within.

Some were folded, tied in discrete piles with thin leather thongs. Letters from Bird for the most part, though some were from the librarian in Rivendell – responses to inquiries she had made. Others were loose notes, from research she’d done in the library in Gondor, and from travelers she’d spoken to when she’d visited the docks and the inns near them. Last were the maps she’d copied or borrowed or bought in her search for detailed information on the southern lands.

With each year that had passed, the stacks of letters had grown thinner. Their plan, made long ago on the deck of the Lonely Star, for Pio to research leads on the whereabouts of the Skinchangers and Bird to do the legwork had started with great enthusiasm. Bird had dutifully followed up on the information she’d gotten from Pio and written back often on how it had panned out. And to be honest, all of it seemed to lead only into blind alleys.

Pio smiled, knowing that even though Bird always had tucked in the back of her thoughts her desire to find her Skinchanger kin, her mind was a lively one. And often other more immediate and interesting pursuits would capture it and draw her in different directions.

In the early years, Bird would travel once or twice a year to Gondor, she told him – making her appearance as Auntie Bird to her adoring nieces and nephew, bringing interesting and exotic gifts from the bazaars of the south, and taking her share of the Star’s profits to fund her travels. ‘But in the last two years there have been no visits, and I have received just this one letter from her,’ Pio said, holding up the slim folded paper. ‘It is the one that the Innkeeper from the Seventh Star gave to me when first I met you. Bird writes of growing unrest in Umbar; says she will be lying low for a while. There is no mention, though, of any contact she has made with her kin, or any further leads she has found.’ Pio rubbed the back of her neck, worrying once more, what sort of trouble her friend might have gotten into. ‘I had hoped,’ she said, ‘to have gone south on the trading mission with my husband, Mithadan. And while there to make contact with her.’

To change the subject, Pio reached for the roll of maps and untied them, spreading each out on the table. Most were pen and ink drawings of various parts of the southern lands, some more detailed than others showing landforms and the ever important places in the desert areas where one could find water. Her newest acquisition, the ship’s journal, gave details of the southern coast – coves, inlets, shoals, water depths, and other information of importance to mariners seeking safe passage from the Bay of Belfalas to areas well south of the Havens of Umbar.

‘What’s this?’ asked Baran, fingering a small grayish colored map of some odd material. It was rolled up separately from the maps on vellum and had an odd feel to his fingers as he touched it.

‘Ah! That was a find of mine in one of the less reputable taverns in Minas Anor. An old friend had gotten it from some folk passing through. Olive-skinned men, as I recall, who spoke in a language he had not heard before. They were somewhere from the south and east of Gondor, or so they indicated with maps crudely drawn on the table top. One of them had a very limited grasp of the Common Speech and indicated this was drawn on mumak hide. It was one of the items my friend received from them in payment for meals and drinks.’

Pio untied the skin and flattened it on the tabletop. It was a worn map drawn in now fading blue ink on the greyish colored hide. An indecipherable script in faint red ink edged the irregularly shaped regions drawn within its boundaries. ‘Look at these,’ she said, pointing to the intriguing symbols drawn in black. Scattered about the regions in discrete groupings, were cross-hatched areas. In the middle of each area was drawn a crude stick figure, each with the drawing of a different animal, insect, or bird where their head would be.

‘We could find no one to tell us what this script was or what it might say. And no one who knew exactly where this place in the south is.’ She moved her finger from stick figure to stick figure. ‘These, too, remain a mystery to us. Bird shrugged them off, saying they might only be places where the hunting is good, or might represent outlandish gods of some sort. A wise old fellow we both knew thought that perhaps the Ithryn Luin had a hand in the making of this map. He thought he noted the Tengwar marks for Pallando and Alatar worked in along one of the boundary lines along the edge. He also said that this script, which he could not translate for us, looked to be of the Haradic writing style.’ She shook her head and pushed the skin to one side, near the pile of papers that were stacked in front of Baran. ‘In the end, we decided it was of no use to us. But still, I find it intriguing.’

Baran’s mug sat empty by him as he picked through her meager store of information. Pio picked it up and held it along with hers. ‘I am having another cup. Would you like another mug of tea, also . . . or something of a stronger persuasion?’

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Old 01-29-2004, 03:55 PM   #85
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Sting

As the banquet drew to a close, Airefalas actually felt optimistic for the first time since his arrival in Umbar. With the banquet that he had dreaded so fiercely all day long fading into a safe and rather uneventful past tense, he found himself in reasonably good spirits for the first time in days. Unaccustomed to idleness, he had enjoyed the working part of the evening, dickering with Umbar's merchants, seeing what they had to offer, both in the way of goods and skill at bargaining. Both were, for the most part, not disappointing. Unfortunately, his good spirits were not to last. No sooner had he and Mithadan left the banquet hall than he saw the familiar faces of Seft, Raal, and Mahat, their guards, waiting to escort them back to their rooms. Instantly, his old sense of foreboding settled back into place. Airefalas walked back to their rooms in a stony silence.

Later, after he and Mithadan had gone over the business of the evening, the two of them sat down for a final glass of wine before retiring. Mithadan commented on his eagerness to leave and, without thinking, Airefalas let fly with some kind of sarcastic rip about the guards. Frankly, he was tired of them, tired of Umbar, and well ready to see open ocean again. Apparently, so was Mithadan.

Airefalas’ jaw dropped in surprise as Mithadan responded with a colorful curse regarding the likely parentage of the guards. Then, as Mithadan drained his cup and slammed it back down on the tabletop, he growled, “May the Valar protect us from our protectors.”

“Hear, hear,” murmured Airefalas and drained his cup as well. It was the first time he had seen Mithadan even come close to a display of ill temper since arriving in Umbar and it did nothing to set Airefalas’ mind at ease. In fact, it had been Mithadan’s composure and confidence that all was going at least somewhat according to expectation that had given Airefalas what little sense of security he had. Mithadan’s loss of patience, he thought, was not a good sign. For a long instant, Airefalas frowned at the table top. Then, coming to a decision, he looked at his captain.

“We do have a plan, don’t we?” he asked.

Mithadan, who had been deep in thought himself, glanced up. “Excuse me?”

“If Falasmir decides to spring the trap he’s set,” persisted Airefalas. “We do have a plan for our defense, eh? As it currently stands, we are at his mercy to be seized at any moment. I, for one, don’t fancy spending the rest of my days rowing.”

“I have taken some precautions,” answered Mithadan, not evasively, but still looking as though his mind was occupied elsewhere.

Remembering Mithadan’s instructions to Saelon regarding the purchase of extra lamp oil, Airefalas nodded. “Well, that’s something, I suppose. Any chance of letting me in on it? I’d breathe easier and I’d certainly be of more value to you if I knew what we were about a little in advance. Right now, I feel like I’m sitting in an enemy camp with a sack over my head.”

He reached out and poured himself and Mithadan each a fresh cup of wine, thinking to himself, well, now I’ve put it all out on the table. He’s either got to trust me or not.
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Old 01-29-2004, 06:11 PM   #86
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Korpúlfr

Korpúlfr raised his glass with the others as Lord Falasmir made a toast to "future relations with their northern brothers." If he had not seen for himself the two corsair ships berthed either side of the Gondorian Merchant vessel, he would have believed that Falasmir's words where sincerely meant, but as it was he believed that nothing could be further from the truth , but just what the ambitious Lord was up to he was not Certain. His suspicious nature had initially lead him to believe that Falasmir planned to seize the ship once it was fully laden, but now he was not so sure.

As he had went about the merchants and lords plying his wares and procuring goods for his return to the growing Maenwaith city, he had listened to a great many rumours and suspicions regarding the nature of the Gondorian ship and it's crew. Some of the lords still seemed to bear ill will towards the Gondorian's and believed that Falasmir should never have permitted the ship to berth, some even thinking that it's crew where spies posing as merchants, but most of these lords were young, brought up on tales of the rich land of Harondor that the Gondorian's stole from them, He too had been raised with these tales and lead to believe that the men of the north were greedy power hungry dictators, But if Airefalas was a Gondorian spy then he was a good one, his friendly manner and knowledge of price negotiation had him convinced that the man was a competent trader. But there were a few that believed that trade with the northerner's would be profitable and even he could not deny this, even with his suspicions of the sea captain and his interest in his people. Then there was Wyrma! did the leader of his people have a hand in Lord Falasmir's intent, surely she too could see the gain trade from the north would bring?

Korpúlfr shook his head as he realised he was questioning the validity of his leaders decisions before he even know what they where, looking up from the red liquid in his glass he noted that Falasmir and his party had left and as he looked around to see if Tinar was still present he saw the Gondorian captain and his first mate join their guards to be escorted back to their rooms, it was then that he noted that a number of the servers in the room watched the two men and relaxed as they were escorted away by their guards, "More guards!" he wondered. Walking in the direction of one such server he deliberately bumped into him as he passed, for an instant the server glared at him then remembering his position he bowed low "My humble apologise sir, please forgive my clumsiness." Korpúlfr nodded curtly and continued on as if the incident was entirely the servers fault and that he accepted the mans apology, but the bump had confirmed his suspicions, he had felt a blade concealed beneath the servers wide loose pants and as he looked around he noted that the real servers all gave the impostors a wide berth, this had not been noticeable in the packed hall but as the room slowly emptied he counted at least fifteen such servers, were they Falasmir's men or was there another factor at work, one of the lords many rivals perhaps? No the men had relaxed as the two northerners left in the care of their guards, either they where there to protect the captain and his first mate from those that still bore ill will towards Gondor or Lord Falasmir was interested to find out what the two men discussed and what they purchased during the function.

Draining his glass and handing it to a passing server he decided that whatever Lord Falasmir was up to Wyrma in her new position would already know of it and would be making sure that it had little or no effect upon their people or their planned advancement, but what she might not be aware of, is the Northern captains interest in their people, a matter that did not sit well with the young merchant.

"Korpúlfr are you still here, I would have thought you would have had your fill of the palace by now, I know I have?" Came the jovial voice of his young cousin, cutting through his thoughts.

"Jahr, Just the person! I need you to do something for me!" he grinned patting the young mans shoulder and leading him to the stand were he had been displaying his wares all night. Searching through the piles of invoices and bills of sale, he found a blank piece of parchment, dipping a white feathered quill into a nearby ink pot he began to write a quick note asking Tinar to meet him at his house first thing in the morning, before he made his delivery to the Gondorian ship, telling him that he had some important information that he might find interesting. Then once signed and the ink dry he carefully rolled it up, tying it closed with an iridescent black ribbon and handed it to Jahr.

"See that Tinar gets this at once, then return to the house. I want you to take a message to Hálfr, I will explain more when you return" he whispered with some urgency. Jahr nodded without question and went to deliver his cousins message.

Kórpulfr then turned back to the room, the hall was now all but empty a few merchants and their servants remained to pack up their wares and the palace servants silently went about clearing up the remnants of the banquet. He stopped two passing young servants and offering them a few coppers he persuaded them to help him pack up his things and take them back to his cart. Once the cart was loaded and hitched to the horses he paid the lads and lighting a lantern he gladly made his way out of the palace and back towards his own home where he intended to write a message informing his father of his suspicions, that if any Gondorians did find their way to the city they would be prepared.

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Old 01-30-2004, 12:46 AM   #87
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Sting

Ráma:

From the earliest days of her childhood, the thick sands and endless open vistas had molded Ráma’s personality and her general approach to life. The desert was not an easy teacher. With one hand, it offered an outpouring of wild beauty and freedom that those dwelling within city walls could scarcely imagine. Yet, there was also constant hardship and the imminent threat of danger that could challenge the very existence of the clan. When the winds of the storm season howled and great sands swirled across the canyon floor, neither Ráma nor her kin had time to sit and ponder choices. Rather, they had to decide what to do and immediately act.

This night was no different. Within a few moments of reading the note, the girl had made her decision. Although Mithadan’s tale of befriending a maenwaith woman in a distant land sounded farfetched, there was an underlying resonance in his words and voice that reassured Ráma he was telling the truth. Given this fact, her decision was simple. Not even Thorn’s command could tip the balance in another direction. Mithadan had helped one of her people, quite probably someone with great need; she now owed him equal respect and generosity.

What that might entail was not exactly clear. Certainly, she would warn the Man from Gondor of the hidden danger that awaited his crew and ship. Although only nineteen years old, she could use a sword and dagger with finesse and was not afraid to fight against the attacking Corsairs, should that be their best option. If military action failed and the two Men needed to flee to save their lives, she would supply provisions and point them in the right direction so that they could cross the great desert leading to ‘South Gondor'. Beyond that, she was uncertain.

Once the initial decision had been made, Ráma never questioned or looked back, but began immediate preparations for the dangerous road that lay ahead. Her first act was to pound on Lena’s door, enlisting the help of her older friend. Lena agreed to care for Kyelek and to hold two camels in reserve should Ráma need these for flight across the desert. The girl’s own pack sat waiting at the door; alongside it, Lena added bundles of extra blankets and generous gifts of food, plus a number of older weapons that had belonged to her deceased husband and sons. These were plain but sturdy iron daggers and swords that Ráma planned to bring to the Men within the palace, since she guessed that the two travelers had probably left their own weapons behind on the Star.

As the women finished gathering supplies, Lena cautioned her friend to be careful. Ráma nodded her sober assent. She did not wish to be a hero, only to do what was right and manage to survive.

Whatever else happened, the girl wanted to make sure that Falasmir’s agents could not use her to trace their way back to the Cat’s Paw or to the Eagle encampment. She had been especially cautious in her remarks to Lena. Rama trusted the woman without reservation, but she did not trust Falasmir’s agents who might track Lena down and question her. While the girl confided a few sketchy pieces of information, she did not reveal the details of her plan.

To further safeguard the Eagle clan, Ráma thought it best to conceal her identity. She yanked out a silver dagger from her belt, handing the blade to Lena. “Here,” she barked, grimly gesturing towards her hair, “Go ahead. Cut…”

Lena had initially recoiled at the thought of sheering that luxuriant mass of raven curls, but a second glare from Rama prompted her to act. Within a few moments, a pile of black curls lay discarded on the floor. Ráma had changed into the tattered garments of a young male slave, using the ashes from the grate to dirty her face. The last thing she did was to load a small wagon with scrub brushes, water pails, and old bed sheets. The weapons were carefully hidden under a bed of straw and the draped sheets.

When she had finished, she said her goodbyes and hurried out the door into the coutyard. Pulling the old wagon behind her, she disappeared into the maze of darkened streets and alleyways, heading towards the palace.
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Old 01-30-2004, 09:16 PM   #88
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Sting

Surinen

“Halloo-oo! Is anyone there?” came a peculiar voice with a peculiar accent, sounding thin and hollow from outside the tent.

Almost as soon as Surinen realized that he had once more drifted off to sleep, and was pleasantly bobbing at the surface of his slumber, someone pulled him up to consciousness, and that rather roughly. “Get up, get up!” Narayad hissed grabbing his arm. “We’ve company, someone is outside, hurry!” Sitting up, Surinen shaken and bleary-eyed, immediately looped the cord that held his knife over his shoulder and followed Narayad out of the tent and into the open air.

“A rope…a rope would be nice…” the voice reflected rather loudly in the night, apparently from inside the well. Both of the outriders ran over to the rim of the opening and carefully crouching down, peered into the darkness it held. They could see nothing, but heard the unmistakable sound of water and something splashing about in it.

“The water’s in,” Surinen whispered rapidly in the dialect of their people. And after another moment added, “And it looks that you have caught a very large frog already!” Narayad frowned in the blackness about him. It was not a time for jokes and they did not know who this was, only that is was obviously someone from outside.

“Hey there,” the well began again. “If you would be so kind as to help me to get out, I would be most grateful.”

“Ah, a talking frog, Narayad!” Surinen continued, smiling. “Perhaps we should take it back to our lady Ayar and make a present of it. What do you say?”

“Enough friend. What does he say?” The other outrider asked, for he had no understanding of the stranger’s language, but knew that having worked among families who spoke several languages as well as their own mother tongue, Surinen might understand.

“It seems he is stuck,” came the reply, “and is need of our aid. But how he came to fall in our well in this vast desert and without our hearing his approach, I do not know. It is quite puzzling.”

“Halloo! Are you still there?” the man in the well queried.

“Yes, yes! We are still here.” Surinen said suddenly breaking into common speech. “Do not worry, we will get you out.”

“Ah! Thank you.”

“Quickly, running back to the tent, Surinen returned with a long length of rope and his grey shawl thrown over his shoulder. Lowering the one end carefully into the dark he asked, “Do you see the rope?”

“Rope? Rope! Yes, I have it now.” And after a few minutes and a great deal of scuffling and splashing a man emerged, his dark hair the color of a raven, reminding Surinen uncomfortably of his dream. He wondered vaguely what might have befallen the songbirds, and if he had been chased by them into the well. Stepping forward he wrapped the shawl around this stranger to protect him from the chill of the evening air. “Are you alright then?” the outrider asked sincerely, clasping him around the shoulders.

“Yes, I am much better now,” the man replied.

“Very good! Come, come!” he said gesturing toward the tent. “You must take coffee with us to get warm again. Should my friend here look for your horse…er camel?” he said fishing for a clue. He had noticed that his guest had not so much as a water skin with him, and looked tired, but not haggard and so he had concluded his mount must have simply wandered away. “So sorry, excuse my boldness!” he said after the man looked at him as though he had asked him to recite some notably bad piece of Haradrim verse backwards. “It is not my business, is it? Very well. I am Surinen, and this strong fellow here is Narayad.” Recognizing his name Narayad bowed slightly, still looking at the stranger darkly. “We just finished digging the well you fell into today. It is too bad that you had not happened by earlier in the week, and so avoided such unpleasantness.”

“Yes, it was an odd chance wasn’t it? But still I am glad to have had your help, and had I been a little earlier or much later, I would still be in the pit wondering how to get out. I am Rôg,” the stranger said and offering no further explanation, much to Surinen's dismay, he followed the others, walking to the small tent a stone’s throw away.
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Old 01-31-2004, 04:18 PM   #89
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Rog

Rog’s eyes took in the interior of the simple tent with delight. So long, so long, he thought. He loosed the grey shawl somewhat as they entered; the small space was a little warmer than the outside and the chilly breezes were blocked. Surinen lit a small lamp that threw a soft, yellowed glow about the small space as Narayad crouched down to light the spirit lamp for making coffee.

Coffee! One of the many things he missed in his time in the northern lands. The smell of the beans as the man crushed them in the grinder filled him with anticipation. Memories of his mother and sister in the morning, busy about the making of the first light's meal, pulled at him.

‘Sit, please!’ he heard Surinen urge him in the common speech, drawing him back to his present predicament. Rog did as he was bid, wriggling into a comfortable, cross-legged position on one of the woven mats. Surinen and his companion worked in comfortable silence together, and Rog took the opportunity to look more closely at them.

Outriders, he guessed. Seeking a water source for their tribe’s migration. Young men, of a similar age. Perhaps half his age, or just a little older. The one called Surinen looked to be some sort of Haradrim shepherd – loose tunic and breeches, an intricately woven belt at his waist. Across his shoulder on a sturdy cord a curved desert dagger in its sheath. He could just picture him with some sort of staff in his hand, marshalling the flocks. Taller than him, he estimated, remembering the ease with which the man had put his arm about his sodden shoulders. And more muscular. Rog chuckled at this thought, flexing his ink stained fingers. No doubt the man wields weightier things than quills and journals! Narayad, too, was firmly muscled – looked to be the sort that had dug many wells in his time.

A fleeting moment of puniness assailed him, allayed somewhat by the fact that so far they had been quite kind to him.

And their speech . . . Surinen spoke passably in common speech. But between them they spoke one of the tribal dialects. The same, he thought, as he’d heard earlier that night, from the story-teller.

‘Your coffee . . . Rog,’ said Surinen, breaking in on his thoughts once again. With a nod to his host, Rog took the metal cup in his hands, waiting for the others to pick up their own. The steaming liquid made the rim of the cup quite hot, and the three blew their breaths across the surface of the dark liquid in an effort to bring it to a temperature tolerable to their lips. It was an old game he’d played earlier in his life. Offer coffee and see who would or could take the first drink. A test of sorts. One’s quotient of manliness went up if he were first to drink. He saw the dark, twinkling eyes of the two men as they watched him over the rims of their drinks.

He drew in a great cooling breath and touched the rim of the cup barely to his lips, drawing in a mouthful of the scorching liquid and swallowing it quickly. Rog could feel the blisters forming and he blinked his eyes once to drive away any tears that might follow. ‘Good!’ he croaked in a raspy voice, sounding much like the frog he had heard them joking about as they stood at the rim of the well.

‘So, tell me, my good hosts,’ he said, after a moment, in common speech. He sat his mug next to him on the mat. His voice had cleared somewhat, and his curiosity come back. ‘What brings you so far south to dig a well?’

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Old 02-01-2004, 11:37 AM   #90
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Hazad crouched in the shadow of a dune and went over his equipment one last time. His blowpipe seemed large and clumsy with its outer casing in place, but to a casual observer it resembled a cheap flute: an added precaution, since this work would have to be done at dusk. He opened the small case in which his darts were kept and counted them again. There were five there, just as there had been five when he had prepared them that morning, and when he had checked them again just after noon. He had coated them with a rare plant venom, slow-acting and just as slow to dissolve, but in the heat of the desert who could tell what might be? He extracted a roll of linen from a pocket and unwrapped a small phial, from which he allowed the merest drops to fall on the tips of each of the tiny missiles. The liquid had cost him a king's ransom, bought from a sardonic apothecary who called it 'the elixir of life'. The man's words came back to him as he worked: 'It brings one to eternity by the long road, sure but slow. I know of no cure.'
Hazad smiled. He had smeared the points of his darts with a many-times lethal dose, but even that would not kill for three or more days. Days of sleepless agony in which he would make his way far from the tents of the Clan of the Eagle and collect his fee.

The encampment was away across two rows of dunes, and he would not approach until the twilight that confused the eyes. He dare not leave it later, since he must catch his target in the open; but to attack in daylight was to invite disaster. As the sun westered he began to make his way toward the perimeter, moving slowly and carefully, freezing at the slightest sound or movement. Eventually he found a good place in a hollow on the opposite side of a dune to the camp. He tested the edge of his dagger and placed it loosely in its sheath, then he sat down and waited for the sun to sleep.

***

As the flames of the sunset died away and twilight fell, a dark figure moved around the shadow of a dune and into the long, pale shadows of the Eagle Clan's tents. They were watchful, of course, but many years had taught him to move in silence, and he had watched the sentries for close to an hour before making a single move. He made for the large tent on which the camp seemed to focus, keeping always to the shadows and avoiding any tent that showed signs of occupation. People still moved around the Matriarch's dwelling and it would not do to be caught. 'The music my flute plays would not be to their liking,' he mused; and his smile was thin and cold.

A number of figures were sitting about a fire near their chief's tent. Some were already drowsing as they listened to the strains of a pipe played by one of their fellows. Keeping his eyes from the fire, Hazad crept to the edge of the group, where several people had fallen asleep. He lay near two of these and watched the open door from which he hoped that his target would emerge. If she did not then he would have to do this again the following night; if not then, the risks would be too great to permit a third incursion. After three days of preparation, he was not prepared to spend any longer in the desert than necessary. 'Show yourself, Eagle,' he thought calmly. 'It is time for your wings to be clipped.'

At that moment she came. Walking between two clansmen, taking the air as he had been told that she would. Many of his targets would vary their routines to thwart just this sort of attack, but clearly this one was taking no such precautions here in her own encampment. He hardly dared breathe as he took out his pipe and the flat box of darts, placing one of the missiles into the end of the tube. They were cunning work: scored half-way up their length so that they would break off, leaving in the flesh what seemed a mere splinter or thorn. The sharp pain they caused was so often thought an insect bite, even by the targets themselves, that sometimes the idea that his victims had been murdered was never voiced. This was the purest form of his art: discrete, silent and unobtrusive; the surgeon's extraction of a being from the world while it slept under the knife.

As he watched, the small group was making its way towards the fire, which was more than he had dared hope. The easiest to kill were those who kept the common touch, for they were often among their people; but he seldom had such fortune as this.
The chief and her companions passed within twelve feet of him, and his dart flew straight and true. He had aimed it at the back of her neck, and it struck only a little lower than he intended. She started, the movement of her clothes dislodging the flights from the dart as Hazad had intended. One of her attendants turned towards her, concern in his face, but she shrugged off the attention. They continued on their way and Hazad's work was complete.

He waited until a group of people left the fire and followed them at a discrete distance, taking care to pick up the discarded flights of his dart as he passed. As they dispersed he made his way into the shadows of a line of tents, and from there he reached the edge of the camp. He skirted the watchers with care, although now that darkness had fallen he was silent and near-invisible in his black silks and satins. He put a line of sand dunes between himself and the encampment and then broke into a gentle run, making for the camp where he had left his horse. He would make the most of the time he had given himself and return to the port. Once he had collected his fee it would be time to move on: he had already been too long at Umbar. 'It is time that I visited my dear homeland,' he mused wryly. It was also time to pay another visit to the apothecary.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 12:46 PM February 01, 2004: Message edited by: The Squatter of Amon Rûdh ]
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Old 02-03-2004, 06:53 PM   #91
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Mithadan refilled his cup of wine and stared down into it as if it might impart to him some insight or nugget of wisdom that he had missed. He swirled the dark red liquid around before sipping at it. Then he looked up at his first mate. He spoke slowly as if testing the truth of his words even as he spoke them.

"I hope that there is no need for concern," he began. "I would like to believe that Falasmir bears nothing but good intentions for us. But the guards and the corsairs and the delays have caused me to doubt him. Yet I can perceive no good reason for him to hold an elaborate banquet in our honor..."

"But...?" prompted Airefalas.

Mithadan nodded. "We are at his mercy," he continued. "Berthing ships of war on either side of the Star and posting guards on the docks is a threat and nothing less. And the girl... Rama, you may have seen her, dark skinned and dark haired, slim and fair enough. She is a trader, one of the desert people. I asked her about a friend of mine who has gone missing in Harad. She warned me not to trust Falasmir and the woman who stood by him. The older woman, Wilma was her name I think. The corsairs alone gave reason for concern. But the warning... she spoke the truth, I could see that in her eyes as she spoke. She believes there may be some threat."

"Is that not enough?" asked Airefalas.

Mithadan shook his head wearily. "It is enough for me to tell Falasmir that we will leave in a matter of days. Our duty to King Elessar and Umbar's hospitality require that at least. And we will weigh Falasmir's response carefully. Also we will leave earlier than we will say. The evening two days hence, I think."

Airefalas' eyes widened and he stood abruptly. "That is your plan?" he said sharply. "To tell him that we are leaving, when the threat is clear?"

"Sit!" replied Mithadan with flashing eyes. "The threat only seems clear. That is my plan if we do not perceive any immediate threat. But if it seems that harm will come with certainty, I have thought of that as well and we will depart less politely."

He rose and took his first mate by the arm, pulling him into the sleeping quarters. Once the door was closed, he outlined his plan deliberately and with great detail. Airefalas nodded as he spoke, but his face remained serious. "Dangerous," the younger man muttered. "Very dangerous, yet I can think of no better way. It will give us at least a chance."

"A chance is the best we can hope for," the plder man replied. "Our ship lies at port in the heart of Falasmir's kingdom. We can do not better than to trust chance..."
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Old 02-04-2004, 03:02 AM   #92
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Gondor

‘What’s ammë doing now?’

The plaintive whisper was hushed at once by a growled shh! from Cami’s right. Isilmir pulled his little sister close to him on the hearth and drew her in near to the fireplace opening. The fireplace in the dining room abutted the small one in the kitchen, and shared a common chimney. With the dampers open, the children discovered they could hear conversations in the adjacent room.

Gilwen leaned in close to Cami, trying to satisfy her sister’s curiosity. ‘She just got up from the table. I think she’s getting more tea for herself. And she asked Baran if he wanted some.’ Gilwen nudged her brother on the arm. ‘Did she put it away?’ she whispered. ‘Not yet,’ he murmured, shaking his head. ‘I think Baran is still looking at it.’ They could hear the faint rustle of paper as some maps were looked at and rolled up again to be stowed in their leather tube.

‘She didn’t notice, did she?’ Gilwen pulled Cami onto her lap, settling her in against her. ‘I don’t think so,’ said Isilmir, a guilty grin stealing onto his face. ‘And you’re lucky she didn’t,’ he added, reaching over to pull at Cami’s hair. A loud ‘Ow!’ ensued, followed by a brief scuffle and a round of hushes and thumps.

‘I didn’t mean to do it,’ sniffled Cami, one fat tear trailing down her cheek. Gilwen hugged her close, glaring at her brother. ‘Oh, it’s alright,’ he said scooting closer to pat her on the leg. ‘But next time, don’t use ammë’s colored inks to paint on her maps.

‘Shhhh!’ hissed Gilwen. ‘They’re talking again . . .’

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Old 02-04-2004, 05:48 AM   #93
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Surinen

Surinen watched Rôg closely over the rim of his cup, as it cooled beneath his breath, his eyes glittering in the light of the oil lamp he had lit to better observe the stranger. He wondered who this person might be that had appeared so suddenly upon the very edge of their camp. Where he was from, Surinen could only guess, and of what to do about him he was also unsure. It was against the dictates of hospitality to deny help to someone found adrift in the desert, as this one doubtless seemed. Yet the man, Rôg, avoided saying how he came to be in such a situation. And that presented a problem to the outrider, for times were not as they were in the past, and strangers were no longer as well tolerated as they might have been it times past, particularly if they were not forthcoming about their business. If the outriders were to bring a stranger such as this one back to the encampment, they would risk their people’s existence, and if he did indeed prove a benign presence, than Narayad and he would still have greatly compromised their position. It was a chance that they would not take.

Surinen’s coffee had almost reached the point were he could safely drink it, and he smiled with the anticipation of being the first, when quite unexpectedly their guest took a sip, and with blinking eyes pronounced it good. It was a show of bravado that would not sit well with Narayad, who Surinen saw was already glaring at Rôg and draining his cup fully, shook the empty vessel out briskly afterward as a sign that he wanted no more, before setting it aside. This fellow clansman did not seem pleased, and Surinen’s smile faded rapidly, as he quickly sipped his coffee and set it down in front of him.

“So tell me my good hosts,” Rôg said after a moment. “What brings you so far south to dig a well?”

Surinen shot another glance at Narayad, thankful that he did not understand Rôg’s speech; and who seemed to be harboring an ill temper despite the success with the well. “One must always have water,” he said, “and a place for the flocks to forage. It grows crowded north of here.”

“Of course. What animals do you tend then?” the stranger inquired, seeming to be sincerely curious.

“Oh, many,” Surinen replied, a bit surprised by the question, for most of the desert people kept the same. “Sheep, goats, camels and very fine horses, slight and swift they are, and beautiful to the eye. My people have many of these things.”

“And very fine coffee also.” Rôg said, evidently enjoying his mug of the drink. Surinen leaned across their circle, filling his guest cup again, and reaching around to open a small wooden box containing some stale flat bread, he placed it before Rôg pouring a small portion of a salty powder onto one corner.

“Eat.” he said.

“What is this?” the guest asked, pointing to the bright red concoction.

“Very hot, but good, chilies, salt, garlic, spice. You will be warm, and it takes away hunger.”

Just then Narayad began speaking rapidly to Surinen, asking many questions, most of which Surinen found he had no answer for yet. “Who is this man? Where is he from? What questions is he asking of you? Be careful of you answers, Surinen, for I do not trust this one who wears gold in his ear.” He declared, wagging his finger dramatically as he cautioned his friend.

“Perhaps he is just a tattooist, lost while traveling to some Haradrim ceremony,” Surinen countered, observing the callous and stain on Rôg’s finger, as he gingerly held the steaming hot mug. “I have not yet learned who he is.”

“Your friend seems upset. Is anything wrong?” The guest inquired.

Shrugging off all the questions raining down on him for the moment, Surinen turned he attention to Narayad and poised his own. “What would you have me do with him then?” he asked with a furrowed brow and punctuating his speech by bobbing his head sharply, as he talked. “We cannot take him with us, not all the way back, for he seems overly curious as to why we are here. You know I would welcome any useful suggestions!”

“We could kill him,” Narayad suggested. “And then worry about him no longer.”

“I can not do that,” Surinen said. “Though he is not open with us, I’m not sure that I would be either in his position.”

“Bind him and leave him then,” Narayad offered.

“Perhaps we could lower him into the collapsed well, along with what he would need to escape. By the time he was to find his way out, we would be gone and he could go his own way, having a little better chance then when we found him.”

“This is agreeable to me, but we can’t afford to leave much,” Narayad stated. “A few days supply at most.”

“It is better than nothing. I will give him a full water skin and my rations,” Surinen said nodding to the decorated wooden box. “He will be alright with that for a few days. And hopefully he will have wandered off long before the rest of us arrive. We can ride out again to make sure of it.”

Surinen turned again to his guest, who eyebrows were raised, no doubt, the outrider thought, in anticipation of an answer. “Narayad was asking who you are and were you are from, Rôg. But you have said that you are Rôg, and do not seem to say more. We will not press you, for we are not a rude people, and your business is your own, as is ours,” he said, the smile returning to his face. “Eat!”
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Old 02-04-2004, 01:17 PM   #94
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Ráma

By the time Ráma made her way through the streets of Umbar and reached the outskirts of the palace, the stars in the night sky were beginning to fade. Already, the servants in the better houses were up and about their business: lighting fires in kitchen grates, preparing and baking the flat bread that formed the staple of the southern diet, and starting their rounds of cleaning and scrubbing, chores that had to be endlessly repeated in a city surrounded by piles of sand. Slaves toting mops and scrub brushes were lined up at the public well just outside the palace, filling pails with water and wearily toting them back inside. A hoard of servants crowded into the public square, not only those of Falasmir's household but others from nearby villas situated in the wealthy sections of the city.

In the grey shadows of early dawn, Ráma had little difficulty blending in with the others. Several of the waiting servants pushed wheelbarrows or tugged at carts and wagons that looked similar to the one Ráma had brought. A guard stood nearby to make sure the slaves did not escape, but he was absorbed in memories of his carousing from the night before and paid little attention to the movement of the servants as long as they stayed within the square.

After filling her waterpail and heaving it onto the wagon, Ráma resumed her place in line and trudged back with the others. The slaves entered the building through a broad gate, walking down a shallow incline that led to the lowest floor of the compound. Here there were no beautiful halls or stunning works of art. The tunnels were black and gloomy. All about her Ráma could see rats, cockroaches, and other vermin apparently attracted by the food that was stored in the closets and larders off the main corridor. It was only a large contingent of cats that kept things minimally under control. These lithe and fierce beasts freely roamed the lower halls within the palace as well as many other wealthy establishments. Adept and devoted hunters, they were not only tolerated but encouraged to do their job.

Intrigued by the sight of so many feral cats, Ráma halted to watch a regal tabby pounce delicately upon a fat mouse and toy with it for a moment before cheerfully devouring the remains. The girl was rewarded with a sharp curse and the flick of a whip about her knees as the guard on duty reminded her to get back to work. Ráma looked away and responded with a muttered curse under her breath, then continued searching for the stairwell that would lead to the main floor of the building. Once she found it, she hurried up to the second floor, continuing through the gilded hallways towards the wing where Thorn had told her that high-ranking visitors were normally housed. She had no trouble finding the right room. There was a circle of soldiers stationed at the door ostensibly for the protection of their guests. Ráma wiped the budding smirk off her face and approached the sentry in charge, gesturing towards her pail and wagon.

The Man dismissed Ráma with a scornful glance, seeing only a young male slave who had come to do routine chores. Taking a key from a metal ring that hung suspended about his waist, he hastily unlocked the door to let her in, preparing to close it again and secure the lock. Before he'd finished, he barked out an order, "Pound on the door when you're ready to leave." Ráma nodded in agreement and noted that it could be some time till all her work was finished, since these Men of Gondor were such pigs. Then she slipped inside.

The girl was relieved to see that she had come to the right room. She recognized a few articles of clothing haphazardly tossed over the back of a chair that Mithadan had worn the night before. The inner door to the sleeping quarters was still shut tight. Apparently, the Men had not yet awoken.

Ráma had intended to arouse them the minute she came into the room. But, first, she took a quick look around. Over on the side directly under the window sat an open travel satchel with a stack of official-looking documents poking out the top. She hesitated, then walked forward and grasped the edge of one of the papers with her fingers, slowly easing it up. She bent down to get a closer look. After all, she was risking her life for these Men whom she didn't even know and, more importantly, the lives of her family and friends.

Like many traditional maenwaith , Ráma was inherently cautious and hesitent to trust her fate to strangers. She pulled out several sheaves of vellum and began scanning the pages hoping to gather more information about who these men really were. From across the room, she heard the slightest noise as the knob of the inner chamber slowly turned. Almost instantaneously, the door inched open and a half-crouching figure slipped through the crack into the room, a Man whom she had never met before. Their eyes momentarily locked as Ráma uncurled her clenched fingers and the papers floated harmlessly to the floor.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 7:34 PM February 04, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 02-04-2004, 10:42 PM   #95
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Airefalas couldn't sleep. Shortly after he and Mithadan had gone over the strategies Mithadan had in mind should events take a turn for the worse, the two of them had decided to turn in. It had been a long day and the following day could well prove to be an even longer one. They would need all the sleep they could get. Even so, Airefalas found sleep hard to come by. The air in the room was too still and close. And it was too quiet. He missed the steady lapping of water against the hull of a ship, the chime of the watch bells. For a long time, he lay in the dark, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, listening to the deep, steady breathing of Mithadan in his bed on the other end of the room. Eventually, Airefalas drifted off, too, but the sleep he found was thin and fitful, fraught with dreams. For several hours, he faded in and out of slumber. Finally, as the first rays of sunlight began to drift across the ceiling from the window, he gave it up.

Rising, he dressed quietly, so as not to wake Mithadan. He intended to go into the front chamber to organize the invoices and bills of lading they had accumulated the evening before, but, just as his fingers closed around the doorknob, he heard the quiet jingle of keys. Seconds later, the outer door opened and closed. Someone had entered their rooms. He froze and listened closely, his ear against the crack of the door. For a long time, he heard nothing, then the faintest rustle of vellum. Whoever it was had apparently decided to search through their papers. Tired and grumpy from a mostly sleepless night and having had more than his fill of stealth on the part of Falasmir and his cronies, Airefalas decided that he had had enough. Slowly, he turned the knob and pushed open the sleeping chamber door.

As the door inched open, Airefalas became aware of a young slave boy standing over Mithadan's satchel, his fingers full of invoices. Airefalas slipped through the opening in a half-crouch, his intention being to grab the young man from behind and immobilize him long enough to ask him a few questions. Odds were he was either a thief searching for valuables or a spy searching for information. Either way, Airefalas intended to bring him up short. Unfortunately, just as he was going to make his move, the boy turned. For a fleeting instant, their eyes locked. Several sheets of vellum floated from the boy's hand toward the floor.

Confound it, he's seen me... thought Airefalas, straightening. So much for the element of surprise. He nodded to the boy. "Good morning, mate," he said rather dryly, continuing to edge toward him. "What are you doing? Can I help you?"

The boy said nothing but his gold-flecked eyes dropped from Airefalas' face toward his hands. One of the boy's hands moved stealthily toward a fold in his tattered garments. Fearing a knife, Airefalas leaped forward. He caught the boy's wrist in an iron grip, and, spinning him away from him, caught the back of the boy's neck with his other hand.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 11:48 PM February 04, 2004: Message edited by: Ealasaide ]
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Old 02-05-2004, 04:47 AM   #96
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Rôg

With his right hand he dipped into the box, taking a pinch of the spicy powder, and sprinkled it on the small piece he had broken off from the flat round of bread. 'Delicious!' he thought, feeling the pleasant sensation of warmth burn in his cheeks as he chewed. A trail of warmth spread from his belly with his first swallow, and he could feel the concoction heat his blood, driving the cold from his limbs.

As he bent to take another bit of bread, the one called Narayad began firing off questions to his companion, cautioning him at the end with a wag of his finger to be wary of how he answered Rôg. Narayad’s cheeks had gone red with his speech, and even one who did not understand their dialect could see that his anger was beginning to build. Another bite of the spicy mixture set Rôg to wondering if Narayad had perhaps eaten a little too much of it.

Surinen’s answer was an interesting one – a tattooist. He would have to tuck that away for future use. Though, he had seen someone tattooed once; a barbarous custom he thought recalling the blood that pooled along the line of needle pricks. His stomach began to feel a bit queasy at the memory. Diverting his line of thought, Rôg broke in on his hosts’ conversation. ‘Your friend seems upset,’ he observed. ‘Is anything wrong?’ There was no answer as Surinen continued to speak with his friend.

His eyes flicked from one face to the other – Surinen with his furrowed brow and Narayad with his ill concealed contempt for the ‘guest’. Tribesmen were reclusive, he knew, but he could not fathom their seeming fear, and loathing at least on the one man’s face, of him. He had been gone too long. What was happening here in the southern lands? Lost in this line of thought, he almost missed Surinen’s question.

‘What would you have me do with him then?’

‘We could kill him,’ his companion offered, in a much too rational tone. ‘And then worry about him no longer.’

Rôg’s throat constricted with these words and he coughed loudly, turning quite red in the face. He waved off a brief look of concern from Surinen, pointing to the spicy mixture on the bread as he gulped some coffee. ‘Kill me!’ he squeaked silently to himself. His thoughts were whirling as he sat the mug of coffee down, spilling a bit on the mat with his shaking hands.

Bind him and lower him into the collapsed well, he heard next. ‘And how gracious!’ he thought on the brink of hysteria - they would be leaving him some water and the few stale rations in the in the wooden box. Though, if the angry one had his way Rôg was sure he would be left nothing. Rôg’s eyes went wide at how calmly they discussed the disposition of their guest, his brows creeping high on his brow. ‘Think’ he silently commanded himself, a myriad of unacceptable solutions springing to mind.

It was then that Surinen turned back to him, speaking some words he did not hear, smiling as the phrases tumbled from his lips. The last word punctured the fog of Rôg's thoughts as he stared into the man’s face. ‘Eat!’

Two, or perhaps it was three, pieces of bread later . . . slowly eaten . . . and still he was unbound. More cups of coffee to accompany the mouth drying morsels. His two hosts sat on the side of the tent opposite him and watched. 'There’s only so much more I can eat,' he told himself. Already his stomach was beginning to protest the load he had put in it.

Rôg pushed the decorated box to the side and made to stand up. Surinen and Narayad started to rise with him. ‘Please, don’t get up,’ he said, facing Surinen. ‘Too much of your good coffee. I just need to step away from the tent for a moment.’ He pulled the grey shawl close about him, pushed back the door flap and stepped through, the sound of their voices low behind him.

‘Give him his moment,’ spat out Narayad. ‘Then we will take him.’

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was the hissing they first heard as they threw back the flap at a run, lances in hand, a coil of rope looped across the chest of Narayad. To their left, several yards away, stood a large brown bird. Its red, bare-fleshed head wove sinuously as it eyed them, sharp-hooked beak clacking a warning. The clawed feet stomped hard on the grey shawl beneath them, making the fine white feathers of the legs riffle as if with barely suppressed anger. A fine show, except for the fact that the bird was not angry, he was frightened.

Extending his great wings, he stood up, stretching his head toward them. He needed more room for a take off than the now more slowly approaching men afforded him. He wove his head back and forth and hissed once more warning them off. They paid no heed.

And,then, as vultures do when they are frightened, he drew back his head and vomited . . .

The stinking, corrosive, fluid projectile sprayed out, catching the men from the waist down, stopping them dead in their tracks as fumes from the reeking scent assailed their noses and eyes. They dropped their weapons, waving futilely at the wretched stinking cloud that enveloped them as they ran for the well.

His escape now assured, Rôg leapt up into the grey dawn light, his long wings flapping furiously. Taking advantage of the thermals rising with the sun, he soared rapidly back toward the area he thought the caravan might have gotten to. Ah! There it was. His sharp eyes caught the sight of the snaking line from a distance. And there, still at the rear of the slow moving procession was his wagon.

Rôg dropped down rapidly from behind to the rear of the wagon with a thumpingly ungraceful landing. Both Aiwendil and the driver glanced back to see the source of the sound. But there was only the tired face of Rôg peering forward at them, his shoulders shrugging, as if perplexed himself . . .

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Old 02-05-2004, 07:13 PM   #97
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Sting

Ráma

As the stranger reached for the back of her neck and the hateful fingers twisted about her wrist, Ráma felt her body stiffen and freeze. A piercing coldness assaulted her mind. No Man had ever touched her in this fashion. She'd made sure of that, staying far away from most Mannish types, other than the one gentle woman who had earned her trust and respect. Even living and working in Umbar, she'd been careful to keep Men at arm's length, never being alone with them or letting herself fall prey to their tricks and whims.

The thing was that the Races, looking at the maenwaith in their outward form, assumed that they were of the Race of Men. A smaller, "lesser" branch of Men, but Men nonetheless. While this may have been true in a literal sense, it was not the reality her people understood. Oh, no. Not at all. A member of the maenwaith living amongst Men was assuming a form, every bit as much a disguise as if she had changed to a horse, or a rat....or an eagle.

The maenwaith had traditionally stayed safely on the fringes of the societies of other Races, taking what they needed and rejecting the rest. Particularly the Race of Men. Especially the Race of Men. Her mother Ayar had secretly spoken of times long ago when the maenwaith had been friends with Dwarves and Elves, beings whom Ráma had only heard about in stories. Never had she mentioned that Men were to be counted among the ranks of those whom the maenwaith trusted and respected. For Men had ever coveted and taken what they could from the other peoples of Middle-earth: wisdom from the Elves and skill from the Dwarves. And from the maenwaith? Men would take their very being, seeking a Power that resided nowhere but in the very fea of her people.

Ráma could not have put any of this into words. But these feelings lay deep within and determined her response to the stranger's rough handling. There was an element of fear and apprehension that went beyond the merely physical.

Suddenly, something inside of her snapped. A carefully constructed wall gave way and came tumbling down in pieces. One minute she lay inert in the grip of a stranger and the next she was kicking and clawing and howling. The form of a young woman disappeared, to be replaced by that of a large white cat with silky hair and golden eyes. She was a skilful hunter of small things, a proud and independent killer who would brook no interference on the part of Man. Her claws raked gleefully against the stranger's chest, ripping his shirt and leaving behind a thin trail of blood that beaded into drops along the edge of the wound.

As much from surprise as any physical assault, Airefalas dropped the howling beast and stepped back in confusion, his face registering a mixture of disbelief and astonishment. Ráma padded over to the open window, twitching her tail in satisfaction at her newfound freedom. She turned back once to broadcast her triumph by hissing at the Man and arching her back and then leapt gracefully onto the window ledge, considering whether she should jump out the casement and leave these rude creatures behind. Pondering her decision, she looked down and remembered the room was on the second floor of the palace. It was a long way to drop.

Ráma felt her temper cool as she gazed out the window to the ground below; once again, she recalled the reason why she had come. She had a debt to repay to the Captain of the Star. With a wary eye fixed on Airefalas, she imperiously trumpeted an order, using human words that could be easily understood, "Man. Go get your friend! I have something to tell you......"

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Old 02-05-2004, 10:06 PM   #98
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Sting

Scarcely a second after Airefalas' hand closed around the back of the intruder's neck, something bizarre happened. The boy disappeared only to be replaced by the hissing and spitting figure of a large, white cat. It twisted in Airefalas' surprised grasp and lashed out with its claws, raking his chest and ripping his clean shirt. Shocked, he let go and watched as the cat bounded away from him and on to the window sill, where it arched its gleaming back and switched its tail. Small florets of blood began to bloom across the front of his shirt. For a long instant, he stared at the cat, perplexed.

The cat, from its perch on the window sill, fixed its golden eyes on Airefalas' green ones.

"Man!" it said very clearly in the common speech. "Go get your friend! I have something to tell you..."

Disbelieving, Airefalas swallowed hard. Then, he shook his head. "No," he said softly. "I am not taking orders from a cat."

Without looking, he threw out a hand and grabbed the nearest thing to a sack that he could find. It turned out to be Mithadan's blue jacket. Before the cat had time to react, he threw the jacket over the top of the feline and bundled it tightly in the heavy fabric. Looking around for somewhere to put it, Airefalas' eyes fell on a large armoire only a few feet away. Opening the front, he shoved the cat inside, jacket and all. Then he sat down against the closed cabinet door. Inside the armoire, the cat began to yowl and scratch like some kind of household demon. Airefalas shook his head and buried his face in his hands.

"I've gone completely mad," he said aloud.

"What's going on?"

Looking up, Airefalas saw that Mithadan had appeared in the doorway to the sleeping quarters. His grey eyes watched Airefalas with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

“Cat?” answered Airefalas rather shakily. Knowing that his voice sounded strained and peculiar to his own ears, he could just imagine what he sounded like to Mithadan. He cleared his throat and tried again. “There was a cat. It’s in the cupboard now.”

“A cat,” echoed Mithadan, moving into the room. “Maybe you should tell me what happened.”

Airefalas nodded. Maybe he should. Maybe he should just get it over with and toss himself headfirst out the window. He took a deep breath. “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I would get up and try to get some work done. But when I opened the door, there was a slave boy standing over your satchel, going through our papers. I assumed it was one of Falasmir’s spies, so I, uh, so I grabbed him.” He hesitated, still trying to wrap his mind around the series of events.

“Only it wasn’t a slave boy or a spy,” he finished lamely. “It was a cat. It’s in the -” he knocked the door of the cabinet twice with the back of his head “- cupboard now.”

“With your blue jacket,” he added before Mithadan could reply. “Sorry. Oh... and it talked to me. It told me to go get you.”

Airefalas knew the story sounded like utter madness. He scarcely breathed as he waited for Mithadan’s reaction and for the sky to finish falling in on his head.
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Old 02-06-2004, 12:22 AM   #99
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Sting

Ráma

Ráma spent five minutes caterwauling and futilely throwing herself against the door of the armoire hoping that it would spring open or that the Man outside would change his mind. Despite her best efforts, the door remained fixed in place. There was considerable space inside the massive chest, enough room for the hunched body of a slender young woman. The obvious thing to do was to change from cat to human guise and kick open the door. Under her belt she had hidden a sharp dagger. Ráma did not intend to use it, but at least it was there if this angry Man proved utterly immune to common sense.

Just as her mother had taught her, Ráma projected an image of her human self inside her head, pushing the white cat back into a corner and trying to encourage the other to return. This, too, met with failure. However hard she willed the change to happen, her body remained that of a cat . A frightening thought intruded. What if she stayed a cat forever? Every young child had heard stories about maenwaith who had kept their animal form too long, either out of choice or negligence, and never found their way back to their original shape. But, on sober reflection, Ráma did not think this was likely. The particular gift of Ayar’s bloodline from the earliest days of the clan had been precisely this: the ability to hold form for long periods of time and safely transform back again. She should be alright when the transformation came as long as she didn’t panic.

Ráma could hear the Men talking outside the door. It was cozy and dark inside the armoire and Mithadan’s blue jacket made an enticing soft bed. She would have preferred to sit on the window ledge underneath the warm rays of the sun, but this seemed like a good second choice. Overcome by the typical needs of her cat nature, Ráma curled herself into a ball and fell into a light sleep, keeping one ear cocked to hear the Men droning on outside. If they finally stopped talking and decided to open the door, she would be ready and waiting.

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Old 02-06-2004, 10:08 AM   #100
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Sting

Mithadan shook the sleep from his head and repeated Airefalas' words to ensure he had heard them correctly. "You encountered a man, who turned into a cat that spoke to you, so you locked it into the armoire?" Airefalas nodded unhappily, believing fully that his captain would think him a fool. To his surprise, Mithadan began to laugh quietly, before approaching the closet and knocking gently on its door.

"Sir cat," he said, "Are you awake?" He was answered by a plaintive meow. "If I let you out," he continued. "Will you excuse my friend's rudeness and not run off?" After some hesitation, the occupant of the armoire meowed again. Mithadan laughed again. "Before I let you out, I'd like to hear your real voice. Whatever you might think of my companion, you are among friends." Airefalas stared at Mithadan incredulously, then spun around as a voice came from behind the door. "Let me out," came the growl.

Mithadan nodded and opened the door. The cat stood, stretched, and stepped out, acting for all the world as if nothing had happened that it had not planned. Mithadan crouched next to it. "You may maintain that shape if you insist," he said. "But would it not be more polite to assume you usual form?"

Golden eyes looked up at the man. "Thanks to your friend here," it replied miserably. "I seem to be stuck in this form." Mithadan's eyebrows shot upward. Then he stroked the cat gently, eliciting a quiet purr. "Be calm," he continued. "A friend of mine spoke of this once. Just focus on your mannish form and recall that you are not really a cat. Remember your true form."

The animal seemed to waver and melt, causing Airefalas to step back with a muttered curse. In a moment it had shifted and in its place stood a slightly built young man. "Very good," said Mithadan as he stood. Then he squinted a bit and an odd look came over his face. "Rama?"
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Old 02-07-2004, 04:17 PM   #101
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Silmaril

A falcon soared high above the sand dunes, its circles now widening, now narrowing. The sun shone relentlessly, though it was yet early morning, and shimmering waves rose from the rapidly warming desert sand. A smaller shadow flew lower over the head of a single observer, and suddenly the falcon swerved down in swift descent. Its talons attached to the smaller bird in mid-air with a thud that could be heard far across the stillness. With a triumphant cry, it circled downwards, landing on the leather-gloved hand of the man who stood watching, his arm raised high.

A moment later, the falcon disappeared and a dark-haired young girl stood laughing beside the older man. Her face was flushed with the excitement of victory as she handed the bird to him. “See, grandfather – I did it!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, little one, you did well,” he said. Holding the starling up so that she could see its trembling body within his firm grasp, he continued, “Always remember this – you are either predator or prey, either you hunt or are hunted. You must choose. Now, what shall be done with your prey?”

The girl stood silent for a moment, contemplating the possibilities. Hesitantly, she said, “The purpose of catching prey is to kill it.”

The man nodded, watching her expectantly. She took the bird from his hands, holding it briefly, then with a quick turn of her wrist, broke its neck as she had seen her grandfather do before. There was a flutter, a shiver that went through the little body, then it lay still in her hand.


° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° ° °

Wyrma awoke from her dream with a start – she had not thought of her first hunting lesson with her grandfather in many years. Why had this memory come back to her now? Perhaps it was to be a reminder that she should be wary in her dealings with both Falasmir and the northern strangers. She would be no man’s prey, and she would not let her people be hunted, of that she was absolutely certain.

Fully awake now, she arose from her bed and paced the room restlessly, eyes seeing yet heedless of the richly furnished surroundings. Finally she sat down at her desk and unlocked the chest with her papers. She took out the plans for the city - her city, and looked at them, imagining what it would be like when the buildings that were as yet only markings on the pages before her had become reality.

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Old 02-11-2004, 10:54 AM   #102
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Baran

"A glass of wine would be lovely, Mistress Piosenniel," Baran answered. "Red if you have it, though I am not picky."

He examined the map closely as she went to a nearby cabinet and withdrew a bottle. She extracted the cork and poured a cup for her guest. He took it absentmindedly and drained it in a gulp. Her right eyebrow rose in amusement and she left the bottle open on the table. "It would seem that this map may confirm the tale told on that scroll," he commented as he poured himself another glass. He remembered his manners this time and nodded to his host before taking another gulp. "Very well," he continued. "That's where we're going then."

"We?" stammered Piosenniel.

"Yes, we," he answered. "You want to find your friend Bird, don't you." She nodded hesitantly. "Yes, but..." she replied. He interrupted her with an expansive wave of his arms. "Then it's settled! We're bound for the south!"
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Old 02-13-2004, 12:49 PM   #103
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Aiwendil:


By mid-morning, after several hours of rolling forward over the sandy trail, the caravan halted in a spot near a watering hole. This oasis boasted a small stand of date palms that offered some promise of shade and comfort from the hot rays of the sun. Word of the traders’ arrival spread mysteriously through the desert to the nomads who pastured their herds nearby, making use of the waterhole in the early morning and evening. Two tribesmen in flowing robes seated astride a pair of camels quickly made their appearance at the campfire where a light meal was being served. They brought several bundles of fine wool fleece along with many addax hides and horns.

Aiwendil watched in fascination as the two parties bargained back and forth until they settled on what would be a fair exchange for the goods in question. He had never been very good at such practical things. After the men had shaken hands and bowed over the agreement, they sat down under the trees to trade news and share a bite to eat. Catching a glimpse of a pair of desert larks on the other end of the encampment, the istar excused himself and went off to have a closer look. He could see the tan birds hidden behind the patches of scraggly brown grass that grew underneath the palms. They pecked about looking for seeds, intermittently talking to each other.

Aiwnedil listened for a minute and was surprised to discover that he understood their language. He could not remember the last time that had happened. He walked over towards the birds and, not wishing to appear rude, gently knelt down to extend a hand of friendship and assure them he meant no harm. They showed no fear of him. Just ahead in the grass was a tiny nest sheltered within a ring of decorative pebbles. There were four speckled eggs in the center of the nest. Aiwendil smiled broadly.

The male bird seemed quite upset about something that had nothing to do with his own presence. The male chirped over at the female in an urgent, pleading tone. Aiwendil sat and listened to the conversation. Although no real words were exchanged, the wizard had no trouble understanding what was being said.

“This place isn’t safe anymore. Let’s hope the little ones peck their way out and we can be off.”

“You’re sure you saw him?”

“Aye. I was flying inland not far from here. Some fellows were digging a water hole. And there he was, the hood pulled low over his face. There were more of the two-legged ones with tents. He went towards them. May Gwaihir help them all! He is an evil wraith. And if he came once, he will come again. It is always so. Who knows if even this is a safe place?”

“Do you know his name?” Aiwendil interrupted. “That which he uses among his kind?”

“I do not know what he goes by among the two-leggeds. But the creatures of the sand call him ‘Shadow of Death’. Wherever he goes, death follows.” The female lark hopped forward and hovered protectively over her small nest.

Then the two birds retreated deeper into the grasses and refused to talk or show themselves. Glancing back over his shoulder, Aiwendil viewed the stooping form of Róg standing perfectly still no more than ten paces distant.
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Old 02-13-2004, 07:42 PM   #104
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Surinen

Surinen and Narayad had spent the early morning hours shivering in the dawn, as they waited for their clothes to dry in the chill parching breeze, the acrid odor of the vulture’s spew still clinging to their campsite despite their prompt attention to its removal from themselves. Surinen had experienced this stench only once before and found himself remembering startling just such a bird during lambing season many years ago. The great hulk had settled itself down upon a stillborn and was frightening the ewes. Surinen, with youthful inexperience had taken it upon himself to shoo away the intruder, but found himself pelted with large rank grey and brown pellets, that unmistakable smell permeating even his reverie. But on that day, the pellets had consisted of fur and bones, and this vulture, though emitting the same perfume, had bobbed its head and retched (with amazing accuracy) bread and coffee and insects. Not standard fare for carrion foul. And there was no mistaking it, between the vulture’s stomach contents, the shawl it had so thoughtlessly soiled, and the conspicuous absence of their “guest”, either Rôg was indeed the bird or had been recently consumed by the same. In any case it appeared that their guest was a skin changer too, and though he did not appear to be a threat, Surinen was still troubled by his appearance. And even more by his abrupt disappearance.

Packing up the last of their gear while they waited, Surinen called over to Narayad who was lashing the three worn and stunted trunks onto the back of the camel. “The clothes are still cold, but I feel we should leave now. Something seems amiss to me, and I would tell Ayar of our visitor here.”

“I have been keeping a watch for any sign of the buzzard, but have not seen a trace of him once he found the horizon. I do not think he was interested in following us back to the camp.”

“Thankfully so,” Surinen said, “for a do not wish to waste time trying to elude him.”

After all the water skins were refilled with the fresh water of the well, the outriders set off for the Eagle clan’s encampment, heading north and east of the well. Appearing, if one was in the air, as small specks creeping slowly along the ground, but to themselves they seemed as if they were adrift in the vast sea of dust and sand that made up these marginal lands.
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Old 02-14-2004, 02:50 AM   #105
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Rôg

Even in the bright mid-morning’s light, it was difficult to see the little birds. And especially difficult given that Rôg had just awakened from what seemed a very short nap. His eyes felt gritty, and he knuckled them along the lines of his lashes in an effort to clear his blurry vision. It was of no use. No amount of rubbing relieved the film that swam across his sight. He could see the figure of the old man standing a short way from the camp. He was bent forward, leaning on his staff, his head cocked to one side . . . listening.

Rôg watched as Aiwendil knelt near the birds, and then sat down. The younger man moved toward the older, his bared feet stepping quietly over the cool morning sand. He could hear a long series of mellow, churring chirps and whistles. ‘Larks,’ he thought. ‘The old fellow has found a pair of them by the sound of it.’ As he drew near, blinking – his vision clearing somewhat as he walked, he picked up the soft sound of another bird. He stopped, a short distance from the other man, his brow furrowing.

He could see the tan little pair now, almost hidden against the beige background of the sand and rocks, scurrying back and forth, seeking seeds and small insects among the few thin clumps of browned grass. They spoke back and forth, pausing often to answer the third bird. Crane his neck as he might, Rôg could not see the other bird. He moved a little to the side of Aiwendil, looking closely for the bird. ‘Must be one of their fledglings,’ he thought his eyes searching hard on the ground.

Chirr-chirr-chree-chree-chirr-chirr-chirr-chree-chree . . .

It was a questioning sound, he thought. But his ears must have betrayed him. The sound came not from the ground where the birds were, but from the old man himself. Rog drew a little nearer, stooping forward to confirm what he had just seen. He stood still as he could, but his movement had now caught the eye of the female, and she made a shrill, warning whistle. In less than the blink of an eye the pair had withdrawn into the taller grasses.

Rôg stood up as Aiwendil glanced back at him. The old man’s face betrayed nothing of his thoughts, though his eyes glinted with a new brightness, it seemed, in the desert light. Rôg’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the older man’s face. There was no way to lead politely into the question he wanted to ask. He looked to where the pair of larks had disappeared into the grasses and nodded toward them with his chin.

‘The little ones,’ he said softly, drawing Aiwendil’s full attention. ‘It seemed as if you spoke with them.’ The old man remained silent. ‘What news did they bring, Aiwendil? Will you tell me?’
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Old 02-14-2004, 08:25 AM   #106
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"Meeeeee...wit, mewit, mewit!"

Kórpulfr woke with a start and as his dark eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realised that he was still in his study. After leaving the palace he had arrived home, giving meticulous instructions for the northerners orders to be made ready for morning and that he himself would be delivering it. He had then retired to his private study to write his father, informing him of the northern captains interest, in desert folk and skinchangers in particular, He also included Wyrma's elevated status as Falasmir's advisor, hoping the old man would shed a little more light on that matter, though he doubted he actually would, the man seem to have pledged his loyalty to the Woman and never spoke of what business dealings they had. He had then attended the papers waiting his signature, then added up that day's accounts, were he must have fallen asleep.

"Meeeeee...wit, mewit, mewit!" The same sound that had woken him, now pulled him from his waking thoughts, turning in the direction of the sharp call, he saw a dark chestnut, feathered head impatiently bobbing up and down, its long red forked tail feathers shaking as it prepared to let out another piercing call.

"Alright! I'm coming, I'm coming!" he laughed as he walked over to the window, the red kite leaped of the sill as he pushed the window outwards and with a quick turn it flew through, barely waiting for him to step aside. The bird circled the room before landing on the seat opposite Korpulfr's desk and shifting into the maenwaith man that was his cousin Jahr.

"Well did you deliver my message?" he asked as he closed the window on the grey dawn and returned to his desk.

"I swear to the spirit of the great hunter that a herd of mûmakil could have charged through Tinar's room and still he would have slept through it, but I gave him your message and he told me to tell you he would be here as soon as he could get away." With a laugh Kórpulfr nodded, he knew the young man would have been annoyed by the ease of the intrusion, but he knew that Tinar would have learned something from the encounter, he would be more cautious and sleep a little lighter. Picking up the letter he had written his father, he crossed to a nearby shelf and took a small, leather tube. Carefully rolling up the parchment, he slipped it inside the tube and tossed it to his cousin, who caught it with a concerned frown forming on his olive features.

"It's that Captain and his interest in our kin that has you worried?" Jahr sighed, staring at the worn message tube in his hand. Korpulfr could see the concern etched on the young man's face, he thought of his family and loved ones and of the horror stories he had been told of the greed of men who sought to dominate and control their people, like him the young man saw that the threat was not only from the Gondorian's but from the very people who had almost driven their clan to the brink of extinction, should the wrong ears listen to the sea captains words it could prove disastrous for the Maenwaith city in it's tender infancy.

"Not worried Jahr, merely cautious. Take my message to Hálfr, my father will see to the safety of our people as he has always done." Smiling he placed a reassuring hand on the young mans arm, Jahr looked up and nodded, grateful for his cousin's reassuring words, he then returned to his feathered form, launching into the air then circling the room before grabbing the message tube in his talons and flying out the window, which Kórpulfr again held open for him.

Korpulfr stood at the window for a long moment just looking out on the city envisioning how much better and more magnificent the Maenwaith city would be once it was complete, greater than the great city of Umbar with it's dark places and dark hearted men who seek power only to corrupt and destroy it, He looked not on the dark and perilous slums but on the Palace and the homes of Umbar's Lords, Those who were not driven to evil by chance and circumstance, but those who chose it freely. Like those who had chosen to ally themselves with the shadow and at his askance hunted the great wolf clan till they were all but diminished. His Grandfather had told him how Wyrma and her clan had found them and taught them that the best hiding place was within, but the fierce spirit of the wolf clan made the thought of hiding a hard adjustment, Until they also learnt that the best way to avenge their fallen people was to strike their enemies from within, like a slow poison spreading through it's victim slowly attacking from within!

A satisfied grin crossed his face, for the wolf clan had not hoarded this lesson and had passed it on to others of their kind and for many years they had spread through the Corsairs city, slowly taking over major positions so that when the time was right they would see the great city of the Corsairs fall to it's knees, but not through vast armies and the spilling of blood would this be achieved, but by taking away the cities economical life line, The Maenwaith will take their trade the people will starve and they will blame these lords who sit in their extravagance thinking of nothing and no one but themselves, but just how would they fare when their coffer's run dry and they are forced to live like beggars in the decay of the impoverished city or to run constantly afraid that the many enemies they have made over the years would find them and make them pay for their many crimes.

A loud shrill screech broke the dry morning air and a dark shadow passed over head, leaning quickly out over the window he looked up, but saw nothing. The noise had startled him from his loathing, he had never before realised how deep his wound went till that moment, slowly lowering his head he saw that his right hand was clenched tightly, slowly he uncurled it to see a small wooden figure in his hand, the very figure he had procured from the market the previous day, he had been holding the object so tightly that the image of the wolves face had pressed tightly against his skin, leaving a clear impression on the palm of his hand. Slowly closing his hand back round the figure he pulled it to his lip's.

"Oh, mighty hunter of my ancestors. I'm I wrong to hold to this hatred and to avenge our people, is this my path or do I linger to long in the darkness of my heart." Another shrill screech broke the silence that followed, but he did not look up, instead he took a leather cord from his pocket and bound it securely around the figure, then tied it about his neck, so the figure sat just over his heart. "My duty is to my clan and they want to see their enemies punished , so it shall be!" he said determinedly.

With new resolve Korpulfr went to his room and then when washed and changed he made his way to the houses large dinning hall, with a deep breath and a last tug on his shirt he opened the wooden door's and stepped inside. Around a large oval table that sat in the centre of the room sat traders of various good's and a few others that had been coming to the Korpulfr's breakfast table for many years, but one thing did these men and women have in common they were all Maenwaith, come to discuss the particulars of this days ventures, and to share any weaknesses or opportunities seen in the sea port. As he entered many of the people gathered nodded respectfully, but all waited for him to sit before they commenced with the matters of that days business. Korpulfr listened and watched them all as they discussed, what lords needed what and how they could best out do their Umbarian counterparts and their many thoughts on the arrival of the Gondorian traders as they tried to decide if their trade would be a threat to their plans, all seemingly oblivious to the fact that two war ships flanked the ship call the Star.

But even as he listened one question rolled over and over in his mind 'Why!" why was Mith... what ever his name was asking about skinchangers, what if he was wrong, no he couldn't be! but what if..... Suddenly the door's burst open and in walked an red faced and very angry looking young man.

"How dare you! How dare you send that....." but he stopped as he saw that they were not alone.

"What is this?" he asked with a wave of his hand in the direction of the assembled group.

"This, Tinar is a traders meeting" Korpulfr answered simply, many of the traders recognising Wyrma's youngest son nodded to him respectfully, which seemed to please the fired young man.

"And we are just finished." Korpulfr continued, smiling to his fellow traders, who nodded and began disbanding.
Once alone Korpulfr turned to the young man, "Now you were just saying..." He asked innocently, lifting a pot of hot coffee and carefully pouring two cups.

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Old 02-14-2004, 08:44 PM   #107
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Ráma:

Ráma glanced over at Mithadan and grinnned. Her handsome curls had been cut short, her face streaked with soot and dirt. She was surprized the man even recognized her.

"Yes, it's me. This was the only way I could get in here. And I looked through your papers. I'm sorry. But, if I'm risking my neck for you and your friend, I needed be sure of your story. And your companion didn't exactly give me time to explain." Ráma turned scowling towards Airefalas.

" I'm here to help. You can decide whether to trust me. Right after I returned from the palace, there was a message. Falasmir plans to seize your ship and sell the crew into slavery. I assume he has similar plans for you."

"Can your source be trusted?" Mithadan probed.

Ráma hesitated, "My cousin....he works at the palace. He's been passing on information for years. He's always been right before. But we have little time. He said yesterday that Falasmir planned to act within two days."

She peeled back the rags on top of the wagon and dug inside, exposing the swords and daggers that Lena had given her. Gesturing towards the weapons, she remarked, "Unless you managed to conceal your own, you're going to need these. And these as well..." Ráma pointed towards the tangled pile of bedsheets. "That is unless you two can change forms or sprout wings, we've got to get out of here some way. The last time I looked you had a circle of admirers at your door." The girl paced over to the window and grimly began unfurling the knotted sheets, watching as they dipped out the casement from the second story to the ground below.

Impatiently staring at the two men who stood rooted in place, she snapped, "Come on then. We can talk once we get away. I didn't come here to get us killed."
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Old 02-14-2004, 09:24 PM   #108
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After telling his tale of the talking cat and the spy who wasn't there to Mithadan, Airefalas waited miserably for his captain's reaction, fully expecting to be relieved of his duties and confined to his quarters for the remainder of the voyage, provided they made their way back to the Lonely Star at all. He could scarcely believe his ears when Mithadan began to laugh. When his captain went on to talk to the cat in the cupboard, carrying on a little conversation with the mewing creature within, it occurred to Airefalas that his captain might be making fun of him. He felt a sharp spike of humiliation at the notion, but the emotion was short-lived, evaporating instantly as a small voice growled from within the armoire:

"Let me out!"

Airefalas startled and spun away from the cupboard door, watching as Mithadan opened it and let the cat out. He suddenly remembered the story his mother used to tell him as a very small boy about the Boggart Trapped in the Butter Churn, and a new thought occurred to him. Let me out. Hadn't the boggart in the story said the exact same thing? Maybe the entire scene was a dream. Maybe he was still asleep in bed and none of it had happened. He would wake up in a few minutes and begin his day as usual. Umbarian slave boys would remain slave boys. Cats wouldn't talk. The world would still be the same world it had been the night before. And the boggart would still be in the butter churn, so to speak.

Furrowing his brow, Airefalas watched as Mithadan stroked the cat's back and talked to it in a pleasant and soothing tone of voice. Without thinking, Airefalas reached up and rubbed his chest where it had begun to sting and itch. He pulled his hand away bloody and remembered the slash the cat had given him that had torn both his skin and his shirt. Airefalas' confusion deepened. The blood was certainly a strong argument against the idea that he was dreaming. Wasn't one supposed to wake up at a pinch? Why not at the slash of five cat's claws? Looking down, he smeared his own blood pensively between his thumb and forefinger. Then, he looked again, more carefully, at Mithadan and the white cat.

Suddenly the cat wavered beside Mithadan and seemed to melt into the air, reforming itself before Airefalas' eyes as the slave boy he had first seen standing over Mithadan's satchel. Muttering a curse, Airefalas fell back a step. This was a little too much. Boys that changed into cats and back into boys again. He had heard of shapechangers in fairy tales all his life but never imagined that they really existed. He raised his hand to his temple where an acute throbbing had set in. But, why not? Stranger things existed in Middle Earth. Why not shapechangers? He had seen his share of oddities at sea over the years, so why not shapechangers, too? He took a deep breath and forced himself to pay attention to the ongoing conversation between Mithadan and the boy-cat. If he wasn't going mad, it might benefit him to know what was going on. On the other hand, if he was going mad, he might as well play along with the hallucination. It obviously wasn't going away.

“Ráma?” said Mithadan, looking closely into the boy‘s face.

Ráma, echoed Airefalas mentally. Where had he heard that name? The world seemed only that much more surreal when he realized why the name seemed so familiar. It belonged to the lovely desert girl he had seen speaking to Mithadan at the reception the evening before. Her beautiful hair had been cropped off close to the scalp, but it was indeed she who stood before them now. He groaned inwardly. Not only had he harassed an ally who had come to offer them assistance, he had also been quite intent on roughing up a girl. He shook his head. Airefalas, my lad, he said to himself. You have had a busy morning.

Aloud, he murmured, “I’m so sorry, my lady.” She did not seem to hear him, confining her attention instead to Mithadan.

She peeled back the rags on the top of a wagon full of cleaning supplies that he had not noticed earlier in all the confusion, revealing two sets of swords and daggers. Still talking, she also revealed a set of bed sheets that had been knotted into ropes. She began to feed them out the window toward the courtyard below.

“Come on, then,” she snapped impatiently. “We can talk once we get away. I didn’t come to get us killed.”

Still rooted into place, Airefalas shot a sharp glance at Mithadan. If they fled now, they surely would be killed, probably before they reached the harbor, definitely before the Lonely Star could slip from her berth between the two black-sailed warships. His immediate temptation was to take the makeshift ropes out of Ráma’s hands and haul them back in the window before they were seen by the exterior guards, but considering the mess he had made of things already, he did nothing. Grimly, he waited for Mithadan to act.

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Old 02-15-2004, 03:03 PM   #109
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Aiwendil

Will you tell me?

Aiwendil's first impulse was to turn to Rôg and deny he had learned anything, and that his 'talking' to the larks was nothing more than the wandering vagaries of an old man. But something inside stopped him from doing that. The birds were sharp eyed observers. The lark had described what he had seen, and the story had the ring of truth, the kind of truth that needed to be passed on to others so the Men could protect themselves. And Rôg could be trusted. The young man had earned his respect and gratitude a hundred times over.

Still, he hestitated. He had always honored the bond of secrecy that Manwe had required of him. What right did he have to go back on his word? Then, like the gentle parting of a curtain, came the knowledge that had always been locked within his mind, but which he had not understood before. That day in the garden, Manwe had made him promise not to reveal his identity until the hoped for day when the great danger would depart. But that had not been the end of their meeting. Manwe had continued, speaking of the new Age of Man. In the days and years following, when grey mists and soft shadows still remained to mar the beauty of Arda, Aiwendil would remain across the Sea. And there would be no blanket prohibition on disclosing something of himself, only the usual warning to say no more than must be said.

For the first time, Aiwendel understood that his presence in Middle-earth, however puzzling or unwanted, was not a punishment or the result of some gigantic error. It was something Manwe had foreseen as likely even from the beginning. This was what Olórin had tried to tell him that day in Bombadil's house, only he'd been too upset to listen or understand. He was here for a reason. What that reason might be he still could not fathom. But he felt the first faint glimmer of hope that someday he might actuall understand.

Turning to Rôg with grace and self assurance, Aiwendil spoke as clearly as he could, "I know it is strange. But my people hail from across the great Sea, and they have gifts.....wondrous gifts: gifts far greater than the few I bear. But I can sometimes hear and understand what the creatures say. And what I heard today signalled death and destruction for innocent folk. The male lark saw a hooded figure of evil, one of the two-leggeds, striding in shadow across the desert with hideous purpose in his step. He spied two fellows digging a well and a circle of tents in the distance that were filled with music and story. The evil one concealed himself and continued towards the tents. I do not know what he means to do, but I fear it will not be good."

He looked across at Rôg, wondering if he should say more. Then he slowly continued, choosing his words with care. "I feel that I am being asked--no, we are being asked--to do something about this. But what that might be, I have no idea."

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Old 02-15-2004, 04:01 PM   #110
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Gondor

‘Then it’s settled,’ he boomed out in his deep voice, catching her quite by surprise with his impulsiveness. ‘We’re bound for the south.’

Baran’s dark eyes glinted in the lamplight, and he gave the Elf a toothy smile, reminding her of a predator whose prey is now in sight. For one brief moment, Pio’s smile mirrored his. ‘Ah, Baran! How you tempt me!’ Her thoughts already whirling with plans of what was needed, where she could get a ship, who she would need to crew it, she plunked herself into the chair opposite him and drawing the map toward her made to speak further. But before the words could form, a loud scuffling was heard from the fireplace.

With a knowing sigh, Pio rose from her chair, whispering to the frowning Beorning. She motioned for him to stay seated and keep silent. ‘Little spies,’ she assured him, speaking low. ‘Let me just take care of this.’

The seats of their sooty breeches’ bottoms were all that could be seen of her three inquisitive children as she slipped quietly into the adjoining room. Cami was trying to wriggle in for a better vantage point between her brother and sister. Isilmir had his elbow out blocking her progress as he vied for position. Gilwen, exasperated by the both of them, loudly whispered for them to keep still - she couldn’t hear anything over their racket.

‘Hear what, Gilwen?’ came the clear question from behind the three. Silence ensued, and then they turned their smudged faces to her. Isilmir was the first to stand, rubbing his sooty hands on his breeches in a vain effort to appear presentable. He looked toward his twin, who had also stood and was now bent on examining her toes as they squirmed on the flagstone of the raised hearth. It was Cami, who came running toward her and gave a fierce, ashy hug to Pio’s leg. Her great brown eyes peered up at her mother as she spoke in a tremulous voice.

‘You’re not leaving me here by my own self are you, ammë? Gilwen said you might leave me behind and take them south with you.’ She sniffled once and then continued in her best pleading tone. ‘I wanna go too! I’m not too little! I wanna go . . . please!’ Pio crouched down, taking the little girl into her arms, motioning the other two into the little circle. ‘I am not going anywhere, sweetling. We were just talking and ammë was only playing along in a pleasant fantasy.’ She shook her head at the twins, her half smile cushioning her words to them. ‘Please do not tease your younger sister in that way. It was mean spirited. I would never leave any of you to fend for yourselves. And I expect the same of you for each other. Are we agreed on this, all of you?’ There were murmurings of agreement, sincere for the most part, punctuated by a smug look from Cami to her sister. Pio laughed, saying, ‘You, too, Cami!’ and hugged them all once more, knowing that this would be another admonition oft repeated.

Baran, by this time, had left his seat in the kitchen and come to the doorway. His bushy brows were raised as he heard her talking to the three children. She stood, a rueful smile on her face, and shook her head at him. ‘A tempting offer, Baran . . . but I cannot just pick up and go south with you.’ Her hand reached down to ruffle Isilmir’s hair. ‘A counter offer, perhaps . . . if you are willing. I would offer you the hospitality of my house until Mithadan returns with the Star. We can discuss plans then to seek Bird in the southern lands with him. Until then, I can show you the library in the city. I know most of those who work there and have some privileges in getting into the collections not open to the main populace.’ The Beorning did not offer an immediate answer to her, nor did she press him.

The children were hurried off to a warm bath and their waiting beds. An old, familiar story of sea-loving Hobbits, their little lost island, and the crosspatch dragon with golden eyes who watched over them ushered in pleasant dreams for the three. Pio pulled the quilts up over them and stepping to the doorway picked up the little lamp on the dresser to the left of the door with her hand. Her right hand went to the familiar picture that hung to that side of the door. A worn piece of vellum, now sandwiched between a small sheet of thin glass and the frame which held it.

The Elf’s fingers touched the rough wood of the oak frame gently as she stepped through to the hallway. She had no need to see the drawing; she could trace every line by heart. Near a river, roughly drawn, was a Hobbit family. Five boys, and a little girl. A mother, too, with a newborn baby on her knee. Above them shown a circle of stars. And there at the apex a smudged in figure – another Hobbit, his features not quite seen. The mother was leaned forward slightly, a stick in her hand. She was telling a story to her own little ones, and there, crudely drawn in the dirt before her, was a ship whose mast bore a banner with a single star upon it. Pio smiled as she blew out the lamp, leaving it on the small hallway table.

Baran had gone back to the kitchen and was sitting at the table, a glass of wine in his hand. They sat and talked for a space of time. Then it grew late and Pio, growing tired, wished to seek the comfort of her own room. Lighting a small lamp to lead the way, she showed him to a large room at the end of the hall. ‘You will at least spend the night, will you not, Baran? Tomorrow you can decide what you would like to do. Feel free to wander the house as you will. The pantry is well stocked. There is also a door from your room that leads out to a small garden just beyond it. Come and go as you like; you will not disturb us.’ She nodded at him as she turned to go toward her quarters.

‘If you wish,’ she said over her shoulder to him as she proceeded down the hall, ‘you can come into the city with us tomorrow. I am going to the Library and then the children want to stop at the Inn on the way home. No need to answer now; the new day will come soon enough.’

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Old 02-19-2004, 01:36 PM   #111
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"Wait!" cried Mithadan. He walked quickly over to the window and pulled the makeshift rope back up. "We cannot flee in broad daylight. Our absence will quickly be discovered and Falasmir will send his men straight to the docks. Even if we were able to cast off, our ship would be overtaken quickly by the corsairs. "

"Then you will simply wait to be seized?" said Rama in astonishment. "I thought to give you at least a fighting chance."

"I did not say that," answered Mithadan. "What you have told us we have long suspected. I would attempt our escape under cover of darkness so that the Star will have at least a chance of evading capture." He rolled up the knotted cloths and hid them in the armoire along with the weapons Rama had brought. Then he turned to his first mate. "We will visit the Star this morning and give Saelon his instructions so that all is ready. Then, this evening we shall evade our guards and attempt to reach the docks."

Airefalas nodded in agreement. "We must give the Star a chance to escape whether we join them or not," he said. "The crew is our first obligation."

"You will risk capture through delay?" Rama asked in surprise. "I assure you that you would not enjoy the slave market."

"I do not doubt that," replied Mithadan. "But we have a plan for our escape. As I said, we already doubted Falasmir. You have merely confirmed our fears... that is if your information is correct."

"You know now what I am," she said indignantly. "Do not doubt that my people have ways of gathering information. My cousin entered Falasmir's chambers and discovered a note outlining the plan to seize you and your ship. Because of your friendship with this Bird, I chose to warn you."

Mithadan looked long into Rama's eyes. She did not flinch but met his gaze evenly and with confidence. He nodded grimly. "I believe you," he said. "Thank you. We are in your debt."

"What is this plan of yours?" she asked.

"It would be best if you did not know," Airefalas interjected. "For your safety and ours."

Mithadan nodded again. "Where are you staying?" he asked. "If we cannot reach our ship, we may be in need of help."

Rama shook her head. "I am staying at the Cat's Paw," she answered. "But I am leaving today."

Mithadan took a deep breath. "I know we ask much," he began. "And we owe you much already. But could you delay your departure one night against the possibility that we encounter difficulties?"
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Old 02-19-2004, 05:23 PM   #112
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“What was so urgent that you sent a messenger to intrude on my well-deserved sleep?” The words exploded from Tinar’s lips, though he was careful to avoid speaking so loudly that others outside the room could hear them. “I was awake long last night, speaking with my mother!”

Korpúlfr pushed a cup of coffee across the table. “Drink this first, though I do not think you need it to wake up. Now, have you already had breakfast?”

Tinar shook his head, accepting the plate that Korpúlfr offered him and filling it with fruits, meats and bread. He ate with the appetite of youth, and his friend allowed him time to calm down before speaking. Then Kor leaned forward and said, “The Gondorians know of our people!” He watched Tinar, satisfied to see his eyes widen in astonishment.

“B- but how…?” the younger man stammered.

“How do they know? I cannot say for sure, though it seems that they have encountered a Maenwaith somewhere. How do I know? I overheard the northern captain asking a wood carver at the market about shapechangers. When the trader answered that they are only myth, he insisted that they exist in truth.”

He waited for a moment to allow the importance of the information to sink in, then continued, “I have already sent a message to my father so that he can be prepared should anyone find our people out. But your mother needs to know as well. Will you tell her? I will bring my wares to the foreign ship and see if I can find out more. I had thought to take you along, but perhaps you should inform Wyrma as fast as possible.”

“They seemed so friendly,” Tinar mused. “If they were to find out about us, what would they do? Would they be allies or enemies?”

“I do not know, nor do I wish to find out,” Korpúlfr answered darkly. “The less strangers know about us, the better it is for our people. Let us hope that your mother does not trust Falasmir overly much.”

“I do not think that my mother trusts any stranger,” Tinar said simply. “When she hears this, she will take even more care that none find us out.” Wistfully, he looked out of the window to the white-sailed ship in the port and sighed. “You are right, I should go and tell her first. Will you tell me all that you find out at the ship?”

“Of course,” Kor smiled. Both rose to leave, grasping each other’s hands in farewell. As Tinar left the house to walk back to the palace, he looked unusually thoughtful. Already he sought to find the right words for a report to his mother. Would she be angry at the northern strangers?
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Old 02-20-2004, 01:33 AM   #113
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Rôg

The old man was having one of his ‘parting of the mists’ moments as Rôg liked to think of them. They had been few and far between when he had first met Aiwendil – sometimes a certain light would peek through the man’s eyes. Or he would gaze into the distance, a far away look, as if there were something he could see but barely. Something that made his present surroundings dim in comparison. That, at least, was what Rôg surmised when his companion would turn back to him, his face a little sorrowful, his look hazy and muddled.

He had spoken with birds before, too, of that Rôg was sure, and once he had spied him crouched down, his fingers held out to the inquisitive nose of a slim, red fox. The creature’s attention was intent upon Aiwendil’s face, his ears pricked forward as if listening to the murmurings of the man before him. The fox had seemed to nod as the old man stopped speaking, dipping his head in a quick bow, before disappearing into the underbrush with a flick of his silvered tail.

Rôg had not pried into these goings on, only filed them away as part and parcel of his companion’s character. ‘We all have our secrets,’ he reminded himself. ‘And it is no concern of mine, those little things that bring pleasure to him.’

But now, having come south, the old man had become less hazy in his manner, more alert and awake. The curtain of doubt that weighed heavy on his spirit had pulled back for the while, and more of that certain light shone through. He was less hesitant, his words spoken in a firmer manner, the old querulousness less frequent.

Which was all well and good . . . for Aiwendil.

And somewhat for himself, Rôg conceded. A morsel of information about the old man’s ‘people’ had been offered. People with gifts, Aiwendil had said, one of them being the ability to hear and speak with animals. Rôg’s eyes narrowed as he gazed at his companion. Had he missed something? Was this one of the lost ones he had been asked to keep on the lookout for? Was this why he had felt drawn to him and so easy in his company? But, no – the old man had said his people were from across the sea, and Rôg had no memory of that being a place of dispersal. His brow furrowed as Aiwendil spoke on. What other gifts did these people from across the sea have, he wondered, looking at the old man with fresh eyes. So wrapped up in his woolgathering was he, that he barely heard the man make his final statement.

‘I feel that I am being asked--no, we are being asked--to do something about this. But what that might be, I have no idea.’

‘We?’ Rôg squeaked, his mouth gone dry at the inclusive word. He put his hand on his chest, trying to quell the hard pounding that beat against his breast bone. Perhaps Aiwendil meant himself and his people. Yes, that must be it, Rôg reasoned, taking a deep breath. The old man had just now remembered the reason his people had sent him here. And now he was trying to discern how to accomplish it.

The tremulous ‘we’ transformed itself into a drawn out ‘we . . .ell’.

Rôg cleared his throat as Aiwendil gave him a curious look. ‘Well,’ he stated again, this time in a surer tone, ‘I think I can confirm that the places the little ones saw were real enough, though I know nothing about this shadow they spoke of. I must admit it was dark when I left last night, there could have been shadows lurking anywhere. But I did make the . . .,’ he paused, searching for a suitable word, ‘ . . . the chance acquaintance of two outriders last night. Digging a well, they were . . . for when their tribe changed camps.’ He looked to the side for a moment, recalling the awkward time spent in their tent and his rude, though necessary, departure. ‘It did strike me that they seemed quite on edge, and not as gracious as might be expected of desert men.’ ‘Far more guarded and suspicious,’ he murmured as an afterthought.

‘And speaking of tents, I might have seen those, too. And now that I think on it, that was curious also. There was a story-teller, and many families sat about her fire, listening to her old tales. Nothing unusual there. But at the perimeter of the camp, I now recall that there were more guards than is usually seen in an isolated camp, safe beneath the desert stars. And there were guards also that passed through the camp occasionally, nodding to the story-teller as they went.’ Rôg squinted, bringing up the memory of those seated about the fire. ‘They held their children on their laps,’ he recalled, ‘or pulled them close in to lean against them. And as they moved I saw it. When the small flames caught the metals and winked out. They all bore arms of one sort or another.’ He shook his head at the incongruous detail. ‘Weapons, easy to hand . . . there, where they should have felt nothing but safe . . .’
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Old 02-20-2004, 12:06 PM   #114
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Thorn

By the time he made it back to Falasmir's palace the sun had already climbed well above the horizon and the grounds were busy with slaves, their watchers ensuring preparations were made for the day. Unfortunately, Thorn would have already been missed at the stables this late in the morning, and he prepared himself for the inevitable confrontations that usually followed such a display of independence in Falasmir's household. Ignoring the pain in his leg, Thorn approached the gate. He had sincerely hoped to pass through unhindered, but a rather large and zealous young sentry of his acquaintance stopped him as he tried to hurry through the passage.

"Were are you going master horse trainer?" the guard shouted, hooking his upper arm, as he passed by.

"To see to the horses," Thorn replied quite simply, looking the sentry in the eye.

"It is a bit late, don't you think."

"Yes, I was detained in town," Thorn said truthfully, though he made no attempt to describe being wedged in a packed storage closet all night, a rather serious mouser lavishing all its attentions solely on him through the small hours of the evening. Nor did he plead the case that this same animal had deemed it necessary to catch hold of his leg as he had squeezed under the door. And in the morning he found he had truly spent overlong as a sand rat and had experienced a rather rough struggle when trying to assume his more customary shape, especially given that the closet had been loaded with bags of new grain. But all his focus now was on requesting leave so that he might return to warn Ayar of what he had heard, and see that Narika was safe, and this without jeopardizing the strategic position of Falasmir's employ.

"What sort business has kept you away from the palace all night, for you have been gone all night, am I not right?"

"I had the good fortune to overhear a conversation, that might interest Lord Falasmir, and wanted to find out the details before asking his leave to pursue it. Unhappily, I fell in with some bad company," Thorn remarked revealing the streaks of brown blood that traced lightly the length of his leg. "I have only just been able to return."

"It seems the horse trainer needs training himself," the large man smirked clapping him on the back. "I would be only too glad to show you how to fight more effectively."

"That may prove worthwhile!" Thorn said trying to appease the guard. "But now I must go speak with Falasmir's steward and face his wrath, before it is too late for me."

"Go then, speak to him if you can discover him! And I will hope to find you later."

"I will look forward to it." Thorn said before quickly distancing himself from the man.

Looking briefly back to the wharf, he could still distinguish the three ships sitting shoulder to shoulder on the water's edge. Nothing seemed amiss that he could discern. The Gondorians evidently were still viewed as the quests of Umbar. Striding down the incline to the lower levels of the palace, he took no small joy this morning in sending the cats gathered there scurrying, as he pondered all that must be done. He must leave quickly then before Falasmir had a chance to spring his trap, when it might become harder to leave without suspicion. If only he knew that Ráma was safely away. Resolving to stop at the Cat's Paw to see if his note had reached her, he entered the broad portal.

It did not take him long to find who he was looking for. Busy after the reception of the previous night, the graying old man was pacing back and forth in a large storeroom with a dog-eared ledger under his arm, sharply ordering the counting of platters and candlesticks, goblets and vases before they were carefully wrapped and returned to their closets.

"Ah, I see you have returned at last!" the man announced distinctly, with evident irritation. "How thoughtless when you know the newly brought horses are awaiting your tutelage. I have a mind to see to it that you are not allowed to leave the premises at all, you impertinent scapegrace!"

"It was unavoidable sir, I assure you," Thorn remarked. "And I hope that this error might be forgiven me for I have learned of the birth of a remarkable colt, deep in the desert. He is already taller and stronger than all his age, and of excellent linage. I had hoped that I might be granted leave to see if it might be purchased for His Excellency's stables, for this opportunity is exceedingly rare. It would be well worth the delay in the breaking of the new steeds if the rumors prove true."

"You leave the grounds all night and are late to return, and then ask leave to go on this goose chase into the desert? I have enough trouble without your abandoning your position or taking your duty so lightly," he said twisting the end of his scanty beard in thought.

“But if you had heard them speak of it, sir! It is if one of what is called the Mearas in the north, had been born in the desert.”

“I mere drunken tale, doubtless”

“No, not so. I came to hear of this in the bizaare, among a most respectable gathering. That is why I am so keen to leave immediately, before some nobleman’s agent acts upon the news!” And so Thorn wove his story artfully, tempting the overseer with a vision of Falasmir's great joy in receiving such a magnificent animal through the old man's foresight in sending Thorn to investigate. And little by little the old man succumbed to the pleasant thought of increasing his own stature in the potentate eyes, allowing Thorn in the end but a niggardly amount of time. But it was all that Thorn required, and he took it with thanks, all the while wondering where he was to find a horse resembling a mearas for Lord Falasmir’s stables.
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Old 02-20-2004, 01:41 PM   #115
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Ráma

Ráma stared at Mithadan and Airefalas and warily shrugged her shoulders, a look of displeasure reflected in her face. Despite their honeyed words, these Men did not trust her. That much was abundantly clear. Had Bird taught them nothing, or were they merely dense? Or perhaps, in the North, her people's customs had altered?

Mithadan had unknowingly opened a tiny door on a culture and people utterly different from his own. He had based his assessment of Ráma and his ideas about the maenwaith on Bird's relatively free and easy ways, essentially not too different from those of Gondor. But the desert folk, and especially the maenwaith of Harad, were wed to older customs and forms. And these older ways of doing things were not always synonymous with those of Minas Tirith, even for citizens like Mithadan whose heart and intentions were good. For the maenwaith there was little middle ground between complete distrust and suspicion, and an open hand given without question. Perhaps a closer equivalent to the maenwaith would have been the Rohirrim from some hundreds of years before when personal ties, oaths, and honorable conduct largely determined what was seen as right and wrong.

When a stranger spoke the words of petition and a maenwaith accepted the truth of those words, a bond was established as sacred and unbreakable as any other oath. Each promised to stand beside the other and not to leave until the task was done. Ráma had expected to raise her sword in defense of the Star till the ship was freed or irretrievably lost. Instead, Mithadan had implicitly questioned her loyalty and the accuracy of her information, as if she was some minion of Wyrma whose only concern was palace intrigue. And now Airefalas and Mithadan were sending her away while they went off to their ship on some secret errand. This wary questioning and concealment of plans was unthinkable among those bound in oath.

By acting like this, Mithadan had forfeited all right to make further claims on her or her clan. She had no other obligations to fulfill, since he had not considered her trustworthy enough to confide their plans. Unlike these outsiders, Ráma knew every step of the city, its streets and buildings, the rich gifts it had to offer, and the pitfalls it posed to the uninitiated. But these Men seemed so sure of themselves that they could utterly disregard that. The young woman scowled: Bird must have had unending kindness and compassion to put up with such people.

Now, having sent her away, he was asking for another favor. By rights, she should turn her back on him. Rama bent down to retrieve her sheets and cart, scowling at the Men and responding coldly, "I have things to occupy me today. I will leave tomorrow before dawn. If you are there, we will see. But I will not wait for you." With that, she turned and left the room.

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Old 02-20-2004, 05:39 PM   #116
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Airefalas watched the door close behind Ráma, then turned to Mithadan with a look of concern.

"She seems really angry," he said quietly. "If I am to blame, I apologize. I really wasn't expecting an ally to come calling in this vulture's nest of a place, particularly not disguised as she was."

Mithadan shrugged. "At this stage, it can't be helped. I suppose we may have insulted her, as well, by not accepting her offer of assistance right at the moment, but that can't be helped either. We have a responsibility to the crew of the Star to do what we can to see them safely out to sea. Slashing our way through those two warships in broad daylight just doesn't seem like a viable option at this point." He walked to the door and, placing his ear near the polished surface of the wood, listened for a moment to the hushed conversation between the departing Ráma and the guards outside. When it had ended and Ráma had continued safely on her way, he turned back toward his first mate. "I only hope that Ráma isn't so angered that she withdraws her friendship from us. A fair amount of time and distance still separate us from the Star and the open ocean. We may need her friendship more than we know."

Airefalas nodded his agreement. "Too true. I did try to apologize to her for my part, but I don't think she heard me."

"Maybe she did."

Airefalas just shook his head, not entirely convinced that - should it come to a desperate situation - Ráma wouldn't leave him, at least, to his fate. Not that he could blame her. From where she was standing, he knew he must seem abominable, jumping at her the way he had and then locking her in the armoire until Mithadan let her out. And all because she had had the decency to try to warn them of Falasmir's treachery. And, then, to have them rebuff her offer to help them escape. Mithadan had been completely correct in doing what he did, but Airefalas, again, found himself wondering how it had appeared in Ráma's gold-flecked eyes. After all, she had obviously risked a great deal for them. And for what? To be patted on the head, thanked, and sent packing.

"Talk about churlish boat captains..." he muttered, thinking of his own comments the day before.

"You think we are churlish boat captains?" asked Mithadan, having overheard. "Would you have done anything differently?" He retrieved his blue coat from the armoire and, brushing a few white cat hairs from the fabric, hung it over the back of a chair.

Airefalas smiled ruefully. "Yes and no." He shrugged. "Yes, we did behave like churlish boat captains - or at least I did, and I would dearly love the chance to undo it - but, no, there was nothing else you could have done. You made a difficult decision and I feel it was the right one. I just don't think that Ráma quite saw it that way."

Sitting down at the table, Mithadan nodded. "I know what you mean, but I strongly believe that she can be relied upon to do as she says she will do. If she says that she will be at the Cat's Paw until tomorrow, then that is where she will be."

Airefalas nodded. His gut instinct told him that, as usual, Mithadan was correct, but the anger and lack of understanding he had seen in the girl's face as she left still bothered him. He had a feeling that a grave misunderstanding had taken place. He just wasn't quite sure what it was or what to do to remedy it should they meet up with the desert girl again. Following a familiar pattern with himself, he concentrated on his own misbehavior of the morning, thinking of how he might have irreparably damaged relations between them and their much-needed ally. A frown deepened across his face. In a way, it was almost as though she was more cat than girl in the end. If one were to accidentally slam a real cat's tail in the door, there was no way to apologize to the cat or explain that it had been a mistake that would not be repeated, at least not so that the cat would understand. Regardless what you did, from that day forward, the cat would eye you with suspicion, especially when you were "armed" with an open door, slipping through the door as quickly as possible whenever she needed to go in or out, always with that same reproachful look at you as though you were just lying in wait for the moment to slam the door again. He sighed bitterly. If only he could speak Ráma's language.

Shaking his head, he walked back into the sleeping quarters to change out of his ruined shirt. Perhaps it would be better not to dwell on it too much for the moment. There were other matters more pressing that should be attended to. Mentally, he changed tacks.

"I've been thinking," he said to Mithadan, who remained in the next room. "I think I know why Falasmir has been letting us make our purchases and go on about our business as if he intends to let us leave. That way, when he seizes the Star, it will be a ship fully loaded with cargo, as opposed to an empty one." Remembering the fate of the hapless captain who had delivered the Amarantha to Falasmir bereft of her cargo, he knew full well how much the Umbarian lord loved a ship rich with bounty. "It would make a far better catch, wouldn't you think?"
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Old 02-21-2004, 12:44 PM   #117
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Surinen

Surinen and Narayad rode to the northeast as quickly as the burdened camel would allow, which was not as fast as Surinen would have preferred. He would have liked to have put a fair distance behind their horses before the heat of the day began to slow them, and wished in vain that they had only the two horses, so making better progress. Among his ruminations he found that he regretted not yet having acquired the mastery of a bird or some other more fleet or enduring beast, which would be of great use in at such times. And so to distract his mind from the slow journey he thought of an eagle, soaring high in the sky, viewing the land from lofty heights, the warm breeze passing over outstretched wings and the desert sun glinting on glossy black feathers. He tried to will his senses into feeling as he thought such a majestic bird might, but after a short while his mind ended up wheeling about, circling in on the vulture that had taken leave of them so suddenly in the night. He could not keep focused.

It was not the first time he had practiced this exercise. He had tried many times before and had yet to feel even the smallest beginning of the humblest of birds present in his being. Apparently it was not to be. Neither bird nor horse nor insect readily overcame his mannish form as he rode through the endless waste, listening to his friend’s monotonous observations.

Narayad seemed oddly enough unconcerned about Rôg and his disappearance. It surprised his fellow outrider that he had so rapidly shut the strange fellow out of his mind, and now spoke only of the success of the well and his return to his new bride. Of the two, Narayad, having only been welcomed into the eagle clan and not born in its confines, should by all accounts have been the warier of the two. For he knew personally of the troubles that outsiders brought upon his native tribe, and had chosen to leave the people of his youth, rather then follow their new path.

In the same way, Surinen’s own sister had left to pursue her own ways without the benefit of her family, and her father and brother were left wondering which road she would ultimately choose, and which path Dinsûl bloodline would follow. For though both his children were of full age, they had yet to pitch their own tents. Mîrya had not found any admirers among the eagle clan and Surinen himself stubbornly refused all attempts to arrange for his taking a wife, until it had begun to be rumored that he had set his heart on someone above his station while he had worked as a servant among the families of the wise. But he, laughing at the notion, and said that it was the untimely death of his mother and the temperament of his sister that kept him from binding himself to another in such a way. And so he would tease Narayad unmercifully for his “weakness”, having not the patience or stomach to listen to him. And so he began to do so again, to help enliven his friend’s conversation and amuse himself along the long way.
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Old 02-22-2004, 12:20 PM   #118
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Aiwendil:

Aiwendil shifted expectently from one foot to the other as he heard Rôg describe the desert encampment with its suspicious outriders and ring of armed guards. He had never seen this place before, but Rôg's description touched upon a corner of his mind that had long been buried and forgotten. For the first time in years, the istar was certain of what must be done.

Filled with a longing he did not fully understand, Aiwendil gazed eastward across the ocean of shifting sand wishing that he could take wing like Rôg or the small desert lark he'd met and speedily put the caravan behind him. But he'd had no hint or indication of any of his other skills returning. He'd have to do the best he could with whatever abilities remained. For one moment, he thought of asking Rôg to fly ahead to the camp on his own and warn the desert dwellers. But two things stopped the istar from making such a request. One was the look of concealment he'd glimpsed in his friend's eyes when he'd first spoken of "we". Aiwendil had been trying to convey the idea that both of them were asked to shoulder a burden neither had looked for or expected. But it still wasn't clear how Rôg felt about that or even if he'd understood the message. The other reason for hesitation was his own nascient certainty that it was just as important for him to be in that camp as it was for his young companion.

Eager to end their conversation and be off as soon as possible, Aiwendil interrupted Rôg in mid-sentence with a curt announcement, "I am going there, to the place you have seen. I would prefer we go together. But, if not, I will purchase a camel and set out on my own. The beast could easily carry both of us, or you may wish to travel in some other form....."

Rôg opened his mouth to protest, but the words seemed frozen in his throat. Only this time Aiwendil had physically turned away, once again staring out at the desert. The old man seemed to be talking to himself or addressing someone whom Rôg could not see. There was a moment of muttered gibberish, or perhaps words in a different tongue, and then clear sentences in Westron, spoken with exasperation. "I know there is a task to be done, but what would you have me do? The boy is thick headed. I have explained things as best I can. This won't work. It's no different than before." The conversation seemed to end here.

But underneath, something stirred within Aiwendil's mind as the istar recalled an image from his past. Once, he had spent endless hours with a band of horses belonging to the mighty Oromé. The task had required Aiwendil to show patience of a type that was unusual among the Maiar. He had spoken softly to the skittish mearas and let them understand the feel of a hand so they would not be so frightened when they reached the plains of their new home. Strangely enough, the hesitent scholar reminded Aiwendil of one of these mearas: unwilling to go forward and put a foot on new land, but too proud to turn back.

Aiwendil stepped forward and shrugged his shoulders, "I am sorry, Rôg. Forgive my impatience. I can not expect you to understand or share my feelings. I truly believe we should set out now on our own and leave this caravan. There are people who need our help. But if you do not feel this way, we will wait a bit. Either way, the road will bend around." He looked over at Rôg and smiled gently, lowering his voice, "I do not know what you search for. But, whatever it is, you are far more likely to find it out among these white sands than in the city streets of Umbar."
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Old 02-23-2004, 03:26 PM   #119
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Thorn

Thorn wasted no time, and avoiding the stables, left the way he had come nearly knocking over a young slave boy pushing a small wagon of pails and tarpaulins as he came round the corner. Grabbing his shoulders he steadied the ragged youth and dodging him made his hurried apologies rushing on only to be delayed by the sentry once more.

"If you are come looking for your lesson, I can not be spared now, but will meet you in the evening when my relief comes," he said as Thorn approached.

"It may be some time, it seems, before I may benefit from your kind offer, even longer than you suggest. For I have not come in search of your instruction, but must leave as soon as possible."

"Leaving already? That is not a good sign! Was Lord Falasmir unhappy with you, or has that uncharitable overseer dismissed you for your ill-advised dawdling?" the guard mocked with an air of friendly self-satisfaction.

"Neither that I know of as yet," Thorn weakly grinned. "But I have been granted leave to pursue the matter I spoke of earlier. It is of great import to me and I must go quickly, if Lord Falasmir’s guard will but let me pass."

"Than by all means, be off. You know where to find me should you return in one piece! Meanwhile, stay clear of bad company and it should serve you better."

"I will do my utmost," Thorn replied, bowing quickly. And with that, passed through the gate and down the hill outside its doors. It was not unduly far to the Cat's Paw and Thorn ran there, though he felt each footfall sharply along the way. Slowing only as he neared the inn, he thought to stop briefly to buy a small token for Narika to remember him by, for he had not seen her since he had last left for the coast and that had been too long ago. Choosing a bangle of bright blue glass from a street vendor, he slipped it into the folds of his robe wishing that he could purchase salt and raisins also. But having no means to carry them on such a long journey, he settled on the light ornament, before he turned down the alley that led to the Inn.

When the familiar building finally came into view, he saw that Lena was out in the yard sweeping the grounds with a bundle of thin twigs bound with mottled leather, her brow beaded with sweat as was his own. And greeting him by name as he arrived, she said, "You have missed Ráma I am afraid. For she left quiet early this morning and I do not expect she will return, either in an hour or in a week."

"Then she has received my message? It was to be delivered by a young lad from the palace, about so tall," Thorn inquired holding his hand between elbow and shoulder high.

"Yes, that would be the one," Lena chuckled, "And I handed the letter over to her myself. There were no others."

"My honest thanks to you dear lady, for your attention. You have greatly eased my mind."

“Than that is easy enough to do! But ease my mind as well, Master Thorn. Please see to it that your cousin is placed away from danger’s reach. She is too daring I think, for a woman, and though she is clever I fear that some ill-luck might befall her.”

“Miss Lena, you do not know what you ask. Ráma is brave and discerning and though I will always try my best to shield her, one cannot cage a gale, and neither can I persuade her to do anything that she does not see the full merit of. But do not worry, she has wisdom as well, and will not readily put herself at risk. Indeed that is why she is gone today.”

“Than if that is the way of it, I need not trouble you with my poor request, but will content myself with your confirmation of her good sense. Thank you Master Thorn.”

“Do not mention it, but I also must be on my way and would ask some water of you before I go.”

“Certainly,” the woman said, and in a few moments she placed in his long hand a wooden cup filled to the brim. Thanking her he drained it, and taking his leave found a secluded corner adjoining a vacant field.

Placing the bangle in the dust before him, Thorn began emptying his mind of its burdens. With closed eyes he focused intently until his mind swam centering on a single point. The sight within him grew in acuity and his arms in restless, as his toes arched and the sharpness of talons dug into the ground, and opening his eyes again there lay the bangle still at his feet. Taking it in his beak, he flipped it up, the ring of glass sparkling in the sunlight, and catching it around his neck, he moved to the field.

With a few effortless beats of his wings he was aloft, an eagle rising above the buildings, heading toward for the deep desert. But this eagle thought not of fish or mice, but contemplated instead how to talk his friend Surinen into posing as a large colt for just a short time, before he eventually became distracted by the small movements on the ground below and the joy of soaring on the high zephyrs.

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Old 02-25-2004, 04:44 AM   #120
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Rôg

Rôg glanced up at the sun, shading his eyes with his hand. He had forgotten how it could affect the minds of those who were not used to the desert. He kicked himself mentally. ‘I should have known an old man such as Aiwendil would not bear up well under the rising heat! Here he is spouting gibberish . . . and now he is speaking of tasks to be done and bent roads!’ What was he to do? He had urged his friend to come south with him and now Rôg felt responsible for this ‘condition’ that had come over him.

‘Here,’ he said taking his companion’s elbow as he ushered him gently into the shade of a nearby palm. ‘Let me just get us something to drink and we’ll talk about where to go from here.’ ‘Sit, sit,’ he urged Aiwendil, spreading his rumpled cloak he had grabbed from the back of the wagon. Hurrying to the box where the traders kept their cooking and eating supplies, Rôg fetched two mugs and filled them from the travelers’ well where the caravan had stopped.

Aiwendil drank from the mug, his eyes glinting over the rim at his solicitous companion. Rôg, a bit taken aback by the older man’s study of him, cleared his throat nervously and began talking to fill in the pressing silence, his eyes looking everywhere but at the man who sat opposite him. He was feeling as ‘thick-headed’ as Aiwendil had said, and a creeping sense of being exceedingly young and unsure now in the presence of his companion had stolen over him. ‘I have missed something here,’ he thought to himself, unable to stop the flow of words as he babbled on about buying a camel from one of the caravan’s traders . . . and no, he did not think he cared to ride one . . . ship of the desert and all that; too bumpy . . . his stomach lurching dangerously at the thought of it.

‘If you don’t mind,’ he went on, changing the subject from thoughts of the rolling sands of the desert suffered from the back of a swaying, and easily irritated he recalled, camel, ‘I think I’ll just fly along, or sit on your shoulder if I need a rest.’ Birds, he thought should be much like the moth he’d tried on the pitching ship – impervious to queasiness. Aiwendil smiled gently at him, nodding in agreement, as he sipped his water.

Rôg’s palms had grown suddenly sweaty. This wasn’t going the way he had hoped. Once Aiwendil had cooled down and come to his senses, seen the light, so to speak, then Rôg planned that they should once again head toward the city. Get the supplies needed for their trek south to seek out the birds they were studying. From there it would be an easy, unstressed journey into the areas where Rôg had spent a great deal of his young life. Aside from his other plans to seek out his family, Rôg was very much looking forward to showing his companion the birds unique to these southern lands.

And now he found he had somehow committed himself to some harebrained quest prompted by the twitterings of two birds . . . and larks, at that. Little chits!

Taking a deep breath, the younger man regrouped. They would still be going south; that was good. Supplies could be purchased from the merchants in the caravan, along with a camel for the old man. The birds’ fears and their warning of the hideous hooded evil figure would be found less threatening than had been supposed; Aiwendil’s own fears allayed . . . and then they could head south to where they’d first intended. Yes - a good plan, a little different from what he’d first thought they’d do. But still it would achieve their goal . . .

His thoughts attempting to assemble themselves into definite plans, Rôg found himself staring into the water that filled his cup half-way. His hands trembled a little of their own accord, sending the dark reflections of cloudless sky roiling back and forth from side to side. He leaned closer, catching the fleeting image of some darker form that sailed across the surface. The cup dropped from his hands, water spilling into the sand. ‘Get hold of yourself!’ he chided. ‘You’re acting like a google-eyed, one-form youngling seeing his next challenge.’ Rôg shook his head clearing his mind of the image he’d glimpsed. ‘Just your own reflection,’ his more rational self whispered reassuringly. ‘Perhaps . . .’ murmured the niggling doubts that had begun to gather on the edges of his thinking.

Aiwendil had long since finished the water in his cup. He sat bent forward, elbows on knees, chin resting on his steepled fingers, watching the face of his companion. He reached out with one hand and poked the leg of the younger man. Rôg, startled out of his reverie by the touch, stared blankly at the old man. ‘The camel,’ said Aiwendil, his voice scattering the last of the lingering doubts, ‘we’ll need to ask about getting one. And perhaps you can see to getting whatever supplies we might also want.’

‘The camel, yes,’ said Rôg, turning toward the tethered group of surly beasts. They eyed him suspiciously as he stood and walked purposely toward them. For his part, he kept a wary watch on their furiously working jaws as they chewed their cud. One hint that they were annoyed and he was prepared to scramble far out of spit range.

A smiling man in a dark burnoose intercepted his advance, announcing himself the owner of this fine string of camels. A list of the beasts’ good points was ticked off by the merchant, followed by a counter list of faults by Rôg. A price was thrown out, a lesser one offered. Fetching himself another cup of water, Aiwendil returned to his seat on the cooler sands beneath the palm tree’s shade. He settled in to a comfortable position and watched the heated interaction between the two men, words and gestures flying between them.

The haggling had begun; it would be some time before they could be on their way . . .

Last edited by piosenniel; 02-25-2004 at 07:18 PM.
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