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Old 01-12-2004, 12:15 AM   #41
Child of the 7th Age
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Sting

Rama and Thorn:

The twisted streets of Umbar appeared nearly deserted under the blazing heat of the afternoon sun. Ráma let Kyelek pick his way through the lanes and alleyways at a comfortable gait. She sat astride a silken pad that bore the colors of her house, since Kyelek habitually chaffed against the feel of leather or a tight girth constricting his belly. Since childhood, Ráma had spent most of her waking hours around horses and felt equally comfortable riding with or without a saddle.

As they journied toward the palace, Ráma noted that the streets about her were virtually empty. She could not help but laugh. These citydwellers were a spoiled lot to hide from a little warmth and sunshine! For at least within the gates of the city, there were numerous shady nooks, and a slight breeze blew in from the harbor, lightening even the heaviest of afternoons.

These lazy folk had no idea what it was to ride for hours through burning, shifting sands without benefit of shade or water! Let them remain within their pampered enclaves and leave her clan alone. Hearts bred in cold stone streets would never understand the beauty of a life spent wandering, the varied hues of a pink tinged sunset as the daytime heat gave way to evening chill, or the awe engendered by one of the giant storms racing across the sands from the mysterious lands to the south and east.

How some of the maenwaith could turn their back on such a life, trading in their freedom for cold masonry, was something Ráma would never understand. Not that her own existence had been easy. There were those among her clan who looked askance at a young woman who had not yet shown the slightest evidence of any gift. At times, Ráma had even wondered if it wouldn't be easier to slip away, taking her beloved horses with her, to live among ordinary men and women who possessed no gifts or dreams. But she could not bear to leave her mother who understood her in a special way or ignore the sweet pull of the desert. And never would she give in to Wyrma, that wretched imitation of a leader who understood nothing of the free life. It was better to die a hundred deaths than be dragged off to live in Umbar, a place no better than a fancy prison!

Approaching the broad walkway that led up the hill to the front gate of the palace, Ráma showed her credentials to the guard on duty, explaining that she'd come to check on the stallions Falasmir had purchased and that she would be staying for the reception that evening. The guard grunted his assent and beckoned her inside. Ráma rode Kyelek through a mazelike series of gates and passageways, ones that she remembered from her earlier visits, turning off onto a side lane that led towards the stables and fenced enclosures. She spurred her mount forward at a faster pace as her mind returned to Thorn. She again wondered why he had not shown up at the Cat's Paw as he had promised to do.

Don't let anything happen to him, she whispered a heartfelt plea to the spirits of her clan. In her short life, Ráma had seen too much evil befall those people she cared for, including her own father Liki who had died at the hands of those hating and fearing what they could not understand. Nothing was safe or sure in Harad. She repeated her plea, offering up a bargain just to be safe. ....Anyone else....but not him.

Riding into the stableyard, she dismounted and slipped the bridle off Kyelek's head, turning him into a small field where tender grass grew, carefully cultivated and watered for Falamir's steeds. Ráma walked over to the heavy door and slid it open, peering into the grey recesses of the stables, straining to make out the shadowy figures and forms. She could see the stalls of the three stallions they had recently sold to the palace, the horses' tack tidily arranged against the far wall, but there was no sign of Thorn anywhere she looked. Pushing down an uneasy feeling, she walked slowly and purposefully between the row of stalls, her fingers slipping to the hilt of a dagger she always carried by her side. The heels of her leather boots clicked against the granite pavingstones, resounding ominously through the recesses of the building.

Where was everyone? The stable lads and trainers, the crew responsible for cleaning the stalls, the carters who brought their wagons of supplies into the yard? The entire area looked deserted. She walked forward two more paces and then stopped dead. From the side of the nearest stall came a rustling, as if someone was getting up from behind a hiding place. She heard footsteps coming towards her and turned around to face the sound, standing poised to throw her weapon if there was need.

"Ráma, it's me." A familiar voice called out of the darkness, driving away the chill.

"Thorn?"

The young man stepped out from behind the stall partition and rushed over to Ráma. He was of middling height, with a comely demeanor, and long black hair pulled back into a thong. His eyes beamed out a welcome, but there was no laughter or reassurance in his voice. He placed a finger over his pursed lips in warning and set his other hand on Ráma's shoulder, guiding her towards a small sideroom that served as the smithy's forge.

Once inside, he carefully latched the door. "Ráma, she is here. Wyrma is here in the palace. At this moment, Falasmir's steward is addressing all the servants in the main hall to announce the news. They are ordered to supply her with anything she desires. I stayed here in the stables. I do not think Wyrma would show up at such a meeting, but I could not take a chance."

A thousand thoughts raced through Ráma's mind, all vying for her attention, but she blurted out the one thing that lay closest to her heart, "Thorn, it is too dangerous. You must not stay here. Wyrma knows your face. You stood beside my mother at the last Gathering. She knows Ayar puts her trust in you."

He looked back at her, vigorously shaking his head. "I must stay. I'll be careful. Something's about to happen, and we don't know what. Wyrma says she's come here to be a counselor for Falismar. Perhaps he believes that story, but I do not. If Wyrma's here, she is here for her own purposes. And we must find out what those are."

"Then let me stay in your place," Ráma begged. "Wyrma knows nothing of me, not even that I am one of the maenwith , since I was never given a woman's ceremony to celebrate the coming of my form."

"No, you must return to warn your mother. I will be careful, but even if I was recognized, Wyrma would probably pay little attention to me." He added with a hint of bitterness, "She thinks little of our clan, and believes we pose no threat."

"Still, I do not like it!" the young woman interjected.

"Who likes any of this? But there is another reason you must return to camp. Your sister, Narika...." Thorn's voice dropped as he struggled for the right words. "Ráma, you must promise to watch over her for me."

Ráma turned away hating to hear the message, yet it did not surprise her. Thorn drew a jagged breath and pushed forward again, glad that it had been said. "You should have been a man, Ráma. For you think and act like one. You have the spirit of an Eagle in your body, whether or not you actually wear the form. Narika is different.... She is quiet and dreamy, filled with song and lore, and she relies on you for many practical things. Promise me you will not let her down."

Ráma sighed and nodded yes. She, too, loved her sister. "I will leave soon to do as you say. But I must attend the reception tonight with the emissaries from Gondor. These men mean nothing to us, but I can't afford to draw attention by my absence. When the evening ends, I will return to the Cat's Paw, pack my belongings, and leave early in the morning."

"Good, my little eaglet. And if I hear anything more about why Wyrma is here or what she plans to do, I will let you know. I plan to pay a little visit to Wyrma's and Falasmir's chambers later this afternoon."

"Be careful!" Ráma warned, "I will watch the skies for you and your message." She stepped back a pace or two, being careful not to hug or touch him, and then walked out of the stables, stopping just once to whisper greetings to each of the three stallions standing in their stalls.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 5:06 PM January 13, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 01-12-2004, 10:47 AM   #42
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Sting

Nerindel – Korpúlfr

As the sun baked the quiet midday streets of Umbar, a heavily laden wagon rumbled through the dusty roads flanked by four well armed riders. It was not uncommon for trade wagons to be looted as they journeyed to and from the city, most of the looted wares usually finding their way to a Corsairs ship, to be sold on at some other port of call. The city itself was also a dangerous place to those who were not aware of the cities darker side. Many a novice trader had lost his purse and wares to the pirates and cut throats by taking a wrong turn and straying into the streets of the less desirable parts of the city, but the wagoneer and his escorts were no strangers to the city and knew to avoid such places when ever possible. The wagoneer himself was a short dark haired young man, his dark eyes emphasized by the black kohl that lined them. The fine cut and gold trim of his tunic, the fine silk of his shirt and the four man escort all marked him as one of Umbar's wealthier merchants.

As the wagon rolled steadily along, passing the empty markets and winding it's way up to the wealthier region of the city the young man sat with an air of confidence, but behind that facade he was contemplating, the events of the past few days. It was now three days since he received the invitation to attendant a banquet at Lord Falasmir's palace, to meet with traders of Gondor. Although the prospect of fresh trade meant more profit for him and his clan he could not help but be suspicious, why now after so long, what are they really up too?

"Woooh!" the wagoneer called pulling hard on the reigns of the four horse team, as they neared the large ornately carved wood framed house that was his Umbar abode. Then dropping the reigns he leapt down, but before he even spoke the four riders had dismounted and began unloading the wagon and from the stables they had pulled up in front of, came the stable hands to take the horses. The stable hands were all Haradwaith men and behind his friendly and confident demeanour he always looked on them with suspicion, but it had been necessary to hire local people to insure the pretense that he was a Haradwaith merchant, though nearly all of the in-house staff were of his own clan or those of other clans that he trusted.

"Make sure, they get plenty of water!" he told the nearest stable hand who nodded his understanding, before continuing to unhitch the team. He turned again to those unloading the cart, his escort were all members of his family people he trusted as he and his father insured their loyalty by keeping them in the comfortable lifestyle they had all become accustom too.

"Take the first five barrels and those three chests to the store then load the rest onto the other cart for tonight," he told them.

"But Korpúlfr, are not these our finest goods!" his older cousin, Hasrim exclaimed, a puzzled look crossing his bearded face as he lifted one of the barrels his younger cousin had indicated was to be taken to Lord Falasmir's palace. The young wagoneer smiled wryly and whispered, "My father wishes us to make a good impression on the Gondorian merchants, we may not trust them, but open trade will not only be good for business it will enable us to keep a closer eye on the doings of their King, it is said that he controls most of the north lands, who is to say that he does not think to control the Southland's also?" then lowering his voice further, that the Haradwaith stablemen could not over hear he added, "or if our lord Falasmir himself is not up to something that may jeopardize our new way of life!"

Hasrim nodded his understanding and went back to unloading the rest of their cargo, Korpúlfr turned from the wagon and made his way to the house where he was greeted by his cousin's Isram and Jahr, the two young men who were entrusted to look after the house and the city business while he attended business in their own city, the as yet secret city of the skinchangers.

"Isram, Jahr, how is business, are the wealthy ladies of Umbar still impressed by our fine goods or do they just come for the charm and wit of my cousins?" he laughed putting his arms round the two men and letting them lead him into the house.

"Business is well, Cousin" Isram grinned, "But what news of home?" Jahr interjected hopefully.

"Is this what you look for cousin?" Korpúlfr laughed pulling a sweet smelling vellum parchment from his tunic and holding it aloft.

"See, I told you she would write, brother!" Jahr laughed to his brother as he snatched the parchment from Korpúlfr's raised hand.

"Now, Cousin if you will excuse me, I will leave you and my brother to discuss the important matters of trade in the city, while I see what fair words my lady seeks to impart, good day to you both" and with a short bow he left.

"If he were not my brother I would swear Hestra has cast a spell over him, making him act like a love sick fool" Isram laughed as they continued on to the study.

"But he should be careful Isram, although we both know that Hestra has not the cunning to have any other interest in the handsome young Jahr, her uncle the leader of the scorpion clan would see a gain in such a union."

Isram nodded his understanding as he filled two goblets with a rich red wine, "Now enough of my brother and his recent infatuation." Isram grinned handing one of the goblets to him.

Korpúlfr held the silver goblet for a second waiting for Isram to drink first, he did not distrust his cousin, the action was one of habit, born of his distrust of the Lords and Corsairs he frequently traded with.

"You know why I am here?" he asked absently admiring the engraving of the goblet he held, smiling as a hidden image of a wolf revealed itself amidst the intricate design as he slowly turned it in the dull light of the study.

"Yes! the Gondorian merchant ship that has been berthed in the commercial harbour for several weeks now!" Isram replied taking a sip from his goblet before continuing, "There has been many fellow merchants and their wives at our door wishing to purchase our finest silks for tonight's banquet, weather to impress the foreigners or their Lord Falasmir is yet to be seen."

"Likely both" Korpúlfr yawned

"You seem unimpressed cousin, but perhaps this will interest you, The Gondorian captain and his crew are being escorted everywhere by Lord Falasmir's men" Isram paced the room to stand in front of the window, something clearly troubling him.

"So he wishes to impress by seeing that none of the unwary foreigners get themselves mugged or killed, by straying into the wrong side of town," he shrugged, finally lifting his goblet to his lips, the warm flavour of the spices adding a pleasant edge to the fine quality wine as it smoothly slid down his throat.

"So, their safety is why two Corsair warships are berthed either side of her!" Isram said dryly, turning from the window to regard his cousin.

But Korpúlfr burst out laughing, "The fools have walked into a trap of Falasmir's design." But his laughter stopped abruptly as he remembered why he was here, “Why if he already has them cornered does he continue with the facade, why are we to meet and discuss trade with them?" he mused aloud.

"My thoughts exactly, perhaps you shouldn't go!" Isram counseled.

"Nonsense! Offend our esteemed Lord, by refusing his kind invitation!" he answered sarcastically. "No, I will go, I would like to get a look at these so called traders."

But as Isram began to object he raised his hand, "do not worry my friend I will be cautious as always," he grinned confidently. Now I wish to get changed I promised Tinar I would show him the city."

"You still suffer that young whelp!" Isram snorted, his disapproval quiet clear.

"Now, Now, Cousin that young whelp may one day succeed his mother to be the next Wyrm, we would do well to encourage him on that path."

"Your room has been prepared," Isram said quickly changing the subject.

Korpúlfr nodded his thanks and setting down his now empty goblet he made his way through the house to his room, sure enough the room was readied as promised. Laid out on the bed was his attire for the evening, loose black pant, a light cream shirt and a reddish brown silk tunic, inlayed with fine gold embroidery.

Once washed and changed, he pulled on his light black boots and leaving his raven black hair loose so as it covered his neck he tied a scarf of the same reddish brown colour of his tunic about his head, the scarf was tasseled and four thin gold coins hung across the front, he reapplied the black kohl that highlighted his dark eyes then added a gold stud to his right ear, before making his way to the stables.

The cart he intended to take to the palace was already prepared and ready to leave, both Isram and Jahr were there ensuring all was in order.

"I what stalls set up at tonight's market, father would be pleased if we returned with full coffers, from both the market and the palace!" he grinned relishing the thought of the lords and ladies of Umbar lining the pockets of their soon to be rivals.

"Now have some one take this to the palace at once! The paper work!" he said holding out his hands, into which Isram placed a scroll and a fine quill, quickly scanning the inventory list to insure it was correct he signed it and handed both back to his cousin
.
"Make sure the deliverer stays with the cart until I arrive or until he receives a note of delivery."

"Do not worry cousin I will stay with the cart and ensure that none of Falasmir's men even think to steal from you." Jahr reassured him
.
"You are to take the cart my young friend, then I am reassured, indeed I pity any fool who would try to steal something from your care" he laughed jovially with the young man.

"Well, you men have work to do and I wait for a guest, so... " just then a small brown sparrow swooped by his ear.

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Old 01-12-2004, 02:36 PM   #43
Mithadan
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Sting

As Mithadan and Airefalas approached the palace with their escort, Mithadan halted and looked up at the sun. More than three hours remained before the reception would begin, he judged. He turned to Airefalas and smiled. "There is an errand I need to run," he said. "I promised my youngest a present when I return and I would not incur her wrath for failing her."

He spoke to the guards and, after a few moments of reluctant discussion, Mahat and Seft accompanied him to the south towards the markets. He had been there many times already, examining herbs, fine cloths and metalwork which would find a market in Minas Anor. But he also had another task there. He had inquired of all who spoke his language about Bird and her people, the Shapechangers.

Most of the vendors had laughed at his questioning, as had the guards. The Shapechangers were the stuff of fable, he had been told. Monster stories to scare children. But a few had blanched and fallen silent upon hearing his queries, declining to respond. He would try once more... and secure the gift he had promised for Cami.

The vendors at the shops were aggressive, waving their wares before him as he passed. "Herbs and oils, magical and fine!" some cried. Others spread reams of cloth on the ground before him, forcing him to step to the side or pause as they rerolled their goods. He looked into several stands and occaisionally inquired about prices, more for the purpose of educating himself than for buying. Finally, he found himself in a stand full of finely carved wooden figures. He purchased five small figurines for Cami, two men, two women and a dog. As the vendor wrapped them, a small group of carvings caught his eye. They depicted manlike creatures, with arms and legs, but they had the heads of animals. Some were birdlike but had mannish heads.

His guards stood patiently at the tent's flap speaking to a wine vendor. Taking advantage of the momentary privacy, he spoke to the vendor, an old man with dark and leathery skin. "What are these?" he asked quietly.

The vendor smiled, revealing several missing teeth. "Desert dwellers, master," he answered. "The strange ones, animals that can take the form of men."

"They can change shapes?" asked Mithadan. The vendor nodded with a grin. He pulled up the sleeve of his robes and revealed a long scar running up his arm. "When I was young and foolish I went with some friends seeking them, for it is said they have special powers and if captured they can turn stone to gold. We found some, but they fled. One fell and we surrounded him. He turned into a great cat and ran off, but left me with a reminder to leave his people alone."

"They are real?" hissed Mithadan. "The Shapechangers live in the desert?"

"Yes," replied the old man. "Very real. Very secretive and very dangerous. They do not like strangers."

"Where can I find them?" asked Mithadan, but the old man shook his head. "They are nomads, wanderers. They are where they are and stay nowhere for very long."

"Can you tell me more?" asked Mithadan. At that moment, Seft stuck his head into the tent. The vendor shook his head. "I know nothing more." Mithadan purchased a figure of a bird with a woman's head, then turned away after thanking the old man.

"It grows late," growled Seft. "We must return to the palace. Mithadan nodded, cradling his purchases in his arms...
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Old 01-12-2004, 03:15 PM   #44
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Sting

Rog

A few hours of sleep brought some respite. Rog woke in the stifling closeness of his cabin, his eyes opening on darkness. The little light Aiwendil had left for him had burnt out, and he did not bother to get up to rekindle it. His thoughts were focused on his stomach, now surprisingly calm, then drifted out to sense the motion of the ship. He could feel the lift of the waves as the ship rode them, but the waters must be calmer now as his hammock swung little as they moved forward.

‘And thank the One for that,’ he thought, rising gingerly from the canvas sling.

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

The flight along the main deck was harder than he’d supposed. Buffeted by the sea breezes, he made short, precarious hops from place to place, his brown moth wings taking a beating. The salt air was refreshing, and as he thought, his moth’s stomach suffered no ill consequences from the rise and fall of the Gull on the waves. His object was to make it aft, without being blown overboard. The captain’s cabin was there – secure from the elements and well lit during the day with natural light from the windows.

The ship was a small one, relative to the others he had seen at the quay in Harlond. A two masted lugger, she was used for trading voyages up and down the coast, from Harad to Mithlond. Hugging the shoreline, she made numerous stops along the route, taking on goods and selling or delivering loads as she went along. Rog flew in a crazy pattern from the hatchway to the rope securing a pallet of stacked barrels. Then, on, in a dangerous diagonal, toward the spar that held the lower end of the main sail, making it just barely . . . one more gusting breeze and he would have sailed helter skelter over the side rail. He waited catching his breath as he smoothed down his wings in the shelter of the rope that bound the sail to the spar. His eye caught the passage of a familiar figure. Faragaer! Leather satchel in hand, he was heading aft, nodding briefly to the figure that stood at his cabin door.

With a determined leap and the mighty flapping of his somewhat tattered wings, Rog dropped down, aiming for the captain. Success! His little feet hooked into the tail of the man’s tunic and he was carried along in a dizzying back and forth motion as Faragaer strode along.

Entering the door to his cabin, the captain made for his chair, motioning his First Mate to follow. Rog’s faceted eyes quickly took in his surrounds and he flew up to a secluded, shadowed corner of a crossbeam, just above the table. He settled in, his brown body disappearing against the darkness of the shadowed wood.

‘What’s that?’ asked Faragaer, seeing the last fluttering of the wings above him. ‘Naught but a moth, sir,’ said Haladan, shrugging his thin shoulders in a dismissive gesture. ‘And not long for this voyage if the gulls spy him.’

Faragaer nodded at the comment as he rolled out the chart for the southern sections of the coast and drew his First Mate’s attention to their stops for this trip.

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Old 01-13-2004, 02:32 AM   #45
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Sting

Gondor

Day turned toward afternoon. The mild morning chill that heralded winter in these lands had passed, and now the hours grew warmer as the sun climbed in the sky. Derylin had come to the house, as he did every week, bringing his swords slung in a leather sheath on his back, and news from the city.

The children, their hands still sticky from stolen cakes, assailed him, dipping their little fingers into the wide pockets of his vest. There were always treasures hidden in their depths – bright shiny stones this time, purported to be from Aglarond, a few heart shaped leaves still green with summer that surely had come from Lorien, and tiny whistles cleverly carved from the hollowed bones of little birds some great lord had snared on a bright spring day.

Isilmir was the first to find a whistle, reeling it out of the pocket and into his hands like a prize fish on a rainbowed string. His sisters gathered round, their eyes wide and envious as Derylin guided the boy’s fingers over the little holes and bade him blow gently on the smooth mouthpiece. Their lips, sweet with honey, parted in delight at the pleasant notes that flew from the little pipe.

‘Oh! I need one!’ cried Cami, clapping her hands as she danced up and down on the courtyard stones. Derylin drew out a second one from his upper pocket, this one on a bright green string, and placed it over the bobbing child’s head. Her chubby little fingers mimicked her brother’s and soon she was happily finding her own, sometimes melodious, tunes to play.

‘And what about you?’ asked the man as he crouched down before Gilwen. Her grey eyes flashed with anticipation, but she raised her chin and drew herself up as if to look down on him from some great height. ‘I should think I might like one,’ she said in an even voice. The scene they played would not hold. He winked at her as he placed the silvered string about her neck, drawing peals of childish laughter. ‘My lady,’ he said, catching her up in his arms and swinging her about in a circle. A chorus of giggles attended his actions and pleas of, ‘Next! Next!’ from the other two who had come running up.

Pio shook her head in admonishment at him, as he set the last of them down and sent them all off to play by the fountain. ‘You will surely spoil them,’ she said laughing. ‘Not possible,’ he said, his face a mask of shameless innocence.

They drew away from the fountain where the children played, to a wide, smooth area in the courtyard. In her hand she held her sheathed sword and with a deft motion she wrapped the leather belt from which it hung twice about her waist. ‘What news do you bring from the city?’ she asked, fastening the plain leather vambraces on her forearms. ‘Nothing too much,’ he returned, drawing his blade. ‘Save that I hear it rumored there is to be a celebration of some sort in a few weeks or so.’

She drew her own blade, testing the familiar feel of it as she sliced the air in front of her with a few quick strokes. ‘Celebration of . . . what?’ Derylin saluted her and advanced on her, blade turned to the side. ‘I don’t know, really. Something the King wishes to do.’ She parried and drove him back. ‘There will be many from outside the city, outside Gondor, who will attend,’ he continued, driving the tip of her blade toward the ground with a downward cut. ‘Or so I have heard.’

Talk ceased between them for a space of time as the sound of metal clanging and scraping against itself filled the courtyard. They were sweating, their breath coming hard, when they called off the dance of steel with nods of mutual assent. Pio sheathed her blade and wiped the sweat from her face with the hem of her tunic.

Cook had come out with a pitcher of chilled wine and another of juice for the children. Swords put aside, Derylin and Pio sat in chairs beneath the fig tree, watching as Isilmir, egged on by his sisters, walked backwards and eyes shut round the raised rim of the fountain. ‘This could be the time he makes it,’ chuckled Derylin, his statement proved false by the splash that followed.

‘So, will you be going . . . to the celebration,’ he reminded her. ‘I hope not,’ she said, thinking of dresses and shoes that pinched, and hair coaxed into something more elaborate than the plait that hung down her back. And dueling conversations with smiles held rigidly in place. With any luck, Mithadan would not return in time, and she would have an excuse to beg off. She refilled their mugs, and clinked hers against his. ‘You will be going, of course,’ she said, saluting him with her mug. ‘You can tell me anything of interest that happens . . .’

Cami came walking up to them, carefully carrying a small plate of honey cakes sent out by Cook. She set the plate on the table, then stepped back, her hands behind her back, looking expectantly from one to the other. Pio raised her brows as Derylin offered the cakes for Cami to make first choice. ‘Just one,’ she instructed the little girl, seeing her reach with two hands toward the plate. Cami grinned impishly, as if she’d expected the restriction, and selected one from the bottom of the pile. A large, fat cake studded with plump raisins she had placed there herself. She giggled and curtsied quickly, then ran off, prize in hand.

‘Her mother’s daughter isn’t she?’ commented Derylin around a mouthful of the sticky pastry. ‘Always plans ahead.’

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Old 01-13-2004, 07:39 AM   #46
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An almost imperceptible rustle caused Wyrma to open her eyes, instantly alert after a brief rest. Elsta was in her chamber, laying out garments for the evening festivities. The maid held up a cream-coloured silken robe with golden embroidery at the neck, sleeves, and hem, her eyebrows raised inquiringly. Wyrma nodded curtly. The two women needed few words for matters of daily life; after many years in the service of the maenwaith leader, Elsta knew better than to expect her mistress’ praise for work well done, and rarely incurred dissatisfaction.

Wyrma had seen the clothing affected by many of the ladies of Falasmir’s court – intricately worked tunics over wide, gathered trousers. She knew well enough that she would only look ridiculous in such garb and elected to keep to the flowing robes of her people, albeit of finer material and more elaborately ornamented than would have been suitable in their desert dwellings.

Before she could retreat to her bath chamber to refresh herself with cool water, a luxury she valued highly, there was business to be taken care of. “Was your errand successful?” she asked, speaking more quietly than was her wont.

Elsta nodded. “It is as you heard. The Eagle clan has united to thwart you. If they serve as an example for others, the scattered opposition may join and openly arise against you.” The maid spoke in a low, monotonous voice that matched her appearance. She wore a robe of a nondescript grey-brown, and her hair, eyes and even skin seemed to be of the same colour. Everything about her reminded Wyrma of a mouse, and in truth she could be just as inconspicuous in her human form as those little creatures were. This quality, paired with her loyalty and a habit of speaking only when necessary, made her an invaluable help to her mistress.

Wyrma’s fingers drummed restlessly on the desk beside her, a nervous gesture which she would have repressed in the presence of others. “Then it is time to take action. This rebellion must be quelled before it gathers momentum. The leader of the Eagle clan is Ayar; I remember her. When we last met, there was a young man beside her, most likely intended as a successor. Not her son, I think, though I do not recall if there are children…” Her voice drifted off while her mind formed a resolve. Elsta wisely refrained from speaking, knowing better than to interrupt her mistress’ train of thought.

“Ayar must be eliminated,” Wyrma said decisively. “Yet is must not seem that I am connected with this deed, not yet. It might shock the others so that they would only become more bold. It must be done by someone else. And where better to find a paid cutthroat than in this city of Corsairs, brigands, and villains!"

Elsta spoke up. “I have heard of someone who might be willing, if the price is high enough. Would you like to speak with him yourself?”

Wyrma thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, he must not yet know with whom he is dealing. Let him show first whether he is capable of this task, then he may be useful for more. You know all that is necessary; establish contact and entrust him with the deed. I will give you a purse that is full enough to tempt him, and after it is done he shall receive more. It would be best to go during the banquet this evening; I shall not need you then.”

The maid bowed her head in assent, her face remaining impassive. Only an almost imperceptible widening of her eyes revealed that this task was different than taking care of her mistress’ clothing or tidying her room.
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Old 01-13-2004, 04:59 PM   #47
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Sting

Airefalas watched as Mithadan headed off in the direction of the marketplace, accompanied by two of their three guards, on business of his own. He considered telling the third guard that he, too, had business elsewhere, anything to avoid returning to the palace, but the throbbing headache that had started in his temples as they were leaving the docks had worsened to a degree that he was beginning to get shooting pains behind his right eye. He figured that the day's oppressive heat was beginning to get to him, and, suddenly, the cool and shadow of the palace rooms didn't seem like such a bad idea after all. Even so, he felt no tremendous hurry to return there. He was just a bit dehydrated. That was all. There were none of the telltale chills of heat stroke. If he could just get out of the sun and have something to drink, he would be fine.

Turning slowly, he looked around the closed and shuttered buildings that lined the streets for a pub, or a wine shop, an inn, anything where he might seize a moment's respite from the sun. Behind him, the guard chuckled softly.

Echoing the words of another guard a short while earlier, Airefalas turned toward him. "You find something funny?"

"You northerners. You can't take the sun," answered the guard, slyly mimicking the squint Airefalas had acquired in his right eye from the pain of his headache.

Airefalas laughed despite his discomfort. "Come with me sometime to the north and we'll see how you do in the snow," he answered dryly. He nodded in the direction of a squat, but hospitable-looking building that stood by itself on a corner just ahead of them. A badly sun-beaten sign hung out front that looked terribly much like an inn's sign would look back in Gondor. "The Crescent Moon. What's that?"

"An inn for travelers." The guard looked nervously at the shuttered windows of the inn, then back up the hill toward the palace. Airefalas could tell he was anxious to get back there, but whether for reasons of his own or just to get Airefalas off of his hands, he wasn't sure. "You won't be needing a room," continued the guard. "You have rooms at the palace."

"It's not a room I'm after," quipped Airefalas, turning and beginning to walk in the direction of the inn. "They have a common room, don't they?"

The guard caught his arm. "We won't be stopping there."

Airefalas gave the guard's hand a sideways glance, then pulled his arm away. "Why not? Is it dangerous?"

"It could be for a Gondorian such as yourself. All manner of folk can be found in such a place. Some carry deep resentments."

Airefalas looked at the sign of the Crescent Moon, then back up the hill toward the palace. It looked like a very long way to go, uphill all the way. He decided that he would rather not do it without getting something to drink first. If he didn't, the headache might yet develop into a heat stroke. Besides, there still remained a lot of time to kill before the banquet in the evening. He looked back at the guard.

"Raal, is it?" he asked. When the guard nodded, he continued. "Am I under arrest?"

"No." Raal shook his head. "You know very well that I am only here to protect you."

"Excellent!" Airefalas grinned. "Then protect me. We're going to the inn." A few short steps took him to the door of the inn, which he opened and entered cautiously, followed by the reluctant guard. In the cool semi-darkness of the inn's common room, his headache instantly began to abate. It took a moment for Airefalas' eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight, but when they did, he saw that the common room was completely deserted aside from the sleepy-looking innkeeper who sat polishing glasses beside the bar. The innkeeper looked up at the entrance of the two visitors, but, upon seeing them, showed no sign of interest or curiosity at all, returning at once to his chore of polishing the glasses.

Airefalas approached him and ordered a pint of beer, offering one to the guard, as well, who declined. Once the innkeeper had handed it over and been paid, Airefalas took his beer to a table near the door. It was an Umbarian brew, pale and rather watery in Airefalas' opinion, but superb under the circumstances. With the guard, Raal, standing impatiently at his elbow, Airefalas half-drained the glass on the first gulp. Then, he sighed and held the coolness of the glass against his face. Just a few minutes more and he would be ready for the trek back to the palace. He knew he should be there when Mithadan returned.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 9:27 PM January 20, 2004: Message edited by: Ealasaide ]
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Old 01-13-2004, 07:39 PM   #48
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Sting

The slopes of Mount Mindolluin were steep and rugged. The city of Minas Anor occupied the east slope of the mountain and farms and dwellings spotted its lowest slopes and clustered about in its valleys. But the higher slopes were deserted save for the occaisional goat. Even so, as dawn spread over the Pelennor and illuminated the city, some folk were out and about and some few reported in the days which followed that a great brown shape had been seen wandering the mountainside. None had tarried to see exactly what it was.

But as the sun rose towards noon, no sign of the beast could be seen though a goatherd reported finding prints in the soft earth. Prints near as large as a dinner plate with five toes and very large claws, he said. That same morning, through the commotion, ambled a very large man who ignored all who passed, save to inquire of the whereabouts of the dwelling of Piosenniel.

Baran found the house easily enough and entered the courtyard just in time to encounter Cami, who was sitting by the fountain devouring a piece of honeycake. She looked up as he approached and smiled around a sticky mouthful of the treat. Baran could not help but to respond with a smile of his own. Like all of his kind, he had a soft spot for cubs, and this was a particularly charming one.

"You're here!" she cried. "Ammë is inside with Derylin."

He resisted the urge to pat her head and, instead, crouched beside her. Even so, he towered above the girl. She giggled as his beard brushed the ground and it occurred to him that he should make use of the fountain before he entered. "Is Derylin your father?" he asked as he splashed water on his face and scrubbed his hands.

"No," she replied. "My father is the Captain of The Lonely Star, the best ship in all of Gondor. He's away, far away in...uh, Bambar."

Baran blinked at the unfamiliar name, then shrugged. "I'm sure that he's a very great man," he replied a bit uncertainly.

"Come!" she cried. "Let's see Ammë!" She grabbed his hand and led him to the door, which she swung open and entered. Baran nearly banged his nose on the lintel, but remembered to duck just in time. Piosenniel was at the table with a youngish man. Two swords rested on the table between them. Baran nodded to the two and summoned his meager knowledge of mannish etiquette.

"My lady..." he said with a slight bow.
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Old 01-13-2004, 10:07 PM   #49
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Sting

Thorn

Thorn watched with some discomfort as Ráma ran her hand lightly over the stallion's arched neck to offer him her private goodbyes and then headed through the stable door to the outside enclosure where she'd left Kyelek. Ráma's initial intention had been to spend several hours interrogating Falasmir's key trading agent for any clues on the latest developments at court and to see if he’d heard of any major changes in his master's plans. At the last moment, Thorn had managed to persuade Ráma that such a probing inquiry was far too risky, given the enigma of Wyrma's presence. The young Skingchanger had returned to the Cat's Paw to pack up her belongings and secure needed supplies for the trip, promising to make a brief appearance at the evening reception.

Relieved to put this conversation behind him, Thorn emerged from the stables and walked quickly over towards the wing of the palace where Falasmir and his chief advisors maintained their private offices. The Skinchanger veered off the public path in the gardens, pushing through a profusion of fragrant hanging blossoms in hues of purple and orange that were normally maintained by a phalanx of gardeners armed with an abundance of watering cans. He slipped inobtrusively inside a small wooden shed the staff used for storing gardening tools.

A few moments passed. A tiny scuffling noise suddenly sounded from underneath the door as a plump sand rat, not much bigger than a child’s hand, wriggled his way to freedom. The rodent scampered over to the building and, digging through the matted leaves and debris, uncovered a half-buried pipe that belonged to a system designed to carry water and garbage from the kitchens to a distant part of the grounds.

Thorn found the accustomed space between the outside and inside pipe, squeezed his body through the opening, and started to swim. He did not like the water, but the fragrant aroma of discarded vegetable marrows and rotting fruits hit him like a pleasant wave; he fought the temptation and paddled on. Coming to the kitchens, he skipped out of the pipe and immediately headed for the safety of the wall boards. A large broom narrowly missed his head as he ran towards a small hole in the wall tucked in a corner of a dark pantry.

This was indeed a foolhardy venture. Normally, he would have made such an expedition after dark. But he could not afford to wait till evening, since he needed the light of daytime to be able to read the documents he unearthed. He made a brief stop in Wyrma’s quarters, but found little of any interest. The woman was both obsessive and devious; every scrap of evidence had been destroyed or put in a locked box beyond the reach of a small sand rat. Continuing his trip behind the safety of the wall boards, Thorn finally came to the room where Falasmir kept his desk and papers. This particular place had yielded a wealth of information on prior occasions.

This time was no different. Falasmir’s desk was littered with a multitude of letters and directives that were piled up in disheveled heaps. Changing back into human form, Thorn ran over to the door and securely latched it, hoping that no one would disturb him. It was a terrible risk to take, but he had to look at the papers quickly, and this seemed the only practical way to do that. Leafing through the piles, Thorn was disappointed to discover that most of them were routine administrative orders concerned with the running of the estate. Nowhere was there any mention of Wyrma or the reason she had come to the palace.

Tired and exasperated, Thorn quickly slipped back into rat form and jumped down from the chair, landing in the middle of a container used for discarded papers. The basket toppled over and Thorn went sprawling, with a paper falling on top of his head. Exhibiting the natural instincts of a rat, he poked his head out and wrinkled his nose, noticing that the paper had definitely been in Falasmir’s hands in recent days. His curiosity aroused, Thorn managed to leap onto a nearby shelf so he could get a better look at the thing. It was obviously some kind of a letter, and was marked through with revisions in a number of places. It seemed to have nothing to do with Wyrma or the maenwaith, instead focusing on the deployment of two warships. The letter included references to the party from Gondor, some of whom were coming to the palace tonight. Reading it over, he shook his head in disgust.

Thorn did not wish ill on any man, and had no particular grudge against Gondor. But this was what happened when people were foolish enough to stray away from their own kin, and travel to places where they should not be! He filed the piece of information away in the back of his mind and turned to leave. He promised himself to go to Ráma later tonight to see if she had any better luck gathering information at the reception.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 12:02 AM January 14, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 01-14-2004, 11:06 PM   #50
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Sting

Rog

The mention of the gulls made his antennae twitch with a frisson of apprehension. Most of his time above deck had been spent staring downward over the railing toward the waves. He’d forgotten about the ever hungry birds which spent much of their time eyeing the decks and the slops chute that emptied into the trailing waters for tasty tidbits. ‘Muddy Bells,’ he muttered to himself as he stroked the nervous energy from each antenna with his front legs. His frenetic grooming was cut short with the mention of ‘the two passengers’ from below.

‘They’ve said they wish to go to Umbar,’ came Haladan’s reply to something the Captain had said about them. ‘I thought we weren’t stopping there this time.’ Rog crept to the edge of the beam and looked down, watching the first mate cock his head to one side, awaiting an answer.

‘We’re not putting in there,’ said Faragear, moving his finger a little further south of the bay on the chart, tapping, as it came to rest, on a small inlet where the hills tapered down along the coast to meet the sea. ‘It’s here we’ll be going.’ ‘And the two passengers?’ asked Haladan again, picking up and apple from the nearby bowl to chew on. ‘They’ll have a choice,’ came the captain’s reply. ‘I’ll offer them a small boat to take them in - though they’ll need to be able to man it themselves. I’ll not risk any of my crew. Or barring that, they can come south with us. I’m sure one of the traders we are meeting will see them safely north to the city’s outskirts.’ Rog listened for a few more minutes, but the talk between the two men had turned to cargo space, and what the bottom prices were for the goods the merchants in Gondor and further north expected.

The windows were shut in the cabin and the air near the ceiling was warm. Moths being for the most part night creatures, he grew drowsy in the late afternoon heat and a certain level of languor crept over him. His sight dimmed and he hunkered down on his three pair of legs, his antennae drooping. ‘Nice,’ he murmured to himself, wriggling his proboscis out of the way as his body flattened against the wood. The rocking of the ship did not bother him in the slightest in this form, and he welcomed a restful sleep with a mothy sigh.

It was several hours later when he awoke. He could almost feel his segmented legs creak as he pushed his body up from the beam; he had lain in one position so long. The two men were gone from the room, and dusk, filtering in through the small paned windows of thick glass, cast the cabin in semi-darkness. He fluttered his wings, and flitted down to the table top below. The core of Haladan’s apple lay discarded on the surface where he had laid it down and forgotten it when the captain called him to another task.

Rog’s toes, or rather the pointy ends of his feet, twitched in anticipation. He was hungry and the ripe mushy brownness of the apple lured him closer. Finding a particularly soft part, he crawled onto it, tasting the succulent sweetness with his feet and mashing it further into a pulpy liquid. With a shiver of delight, he poked his proboscis into the midst of this tasty mess and slurped it up with an inaudible sigh. The room grew darker as the sun set.

‘Best be getting back to Aiwendil,’ he thought dreamily, as his antennae twitched with the sheer pleasure of feeling good for the moment. ‘Tell him what I’ve heard.’ An imperceptible belch issued from his mouthparts, and he curled up his proboscis, tucking it carefully under his head. For the most part, he did not worry that he had spent so long in his present shape . . . but better to be careful. Too long in one guise might find him fluttering off in search of a mate and ensuing death.

He flew to the lintel of the door, finding the crack he had spied earlier from his vantage point on the crossbeam. Crawling through, he cast about with his eyes for signs of any predators. The birds would already be drowsing, but the men aboard might inadvertently swat at him. The breezes had died down, the flight back down below-deck was straighter and quicker. Once back in the room he shared with Aiwendil, he changed back to his mannish form.

Now all he had to do was wait for the old man to return . . .

Last edited by piosenniel; 04-07-2004 at 12:03 PM.
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Old 01-15-2004, 01:10 AM   #51
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Sting

Aiwendil

Aiwendil slammed the door and stalked into the room, a keen look of irritation etched on his face. He glared over at Rôg and immediately started in, wrinking his nose in disgust, "Where have you been? You smell like a vat of cider! Maybe others wouldn't mind, but I have a sensitive nose."

Without stopping to draw breath, he continued, "I thought you were ill, but I see you have been traipsing over the entire ship, while I sit here by myself in the room." Aiwendil marched over to the porthole, pulled up his hood, and gazed out at the distant waters, staring with empty eyes, "I thought that I woud enjoy this trip--the gentle waves, the birds, the great dolphins and whales leaping up from the surf--but all I can remember is the last time I was on a sea-going vessel. That sad journey took me from a place of great beauty to these ill-fated shores, and it's something I would rather forget."

"The sooner we arrive the better." He looked over impatiently at his companion and servant, "Have you done anything to arrange for our travel and accomodations once we reach the port at Umbar?"

Rôg shook his head and began to explain that the captain was not going to be able to bring the ship into the harbor of the capital city on account of rumors of unrest. He went on to outline the two choices they had: a small boat they could man themselves, or sailing further south and then travelling north with a caravan of traders.

Aiwendil scowled and shook his head, "A small boat? By ourselves? Out on the open sea? That would be folly! I don't like the sound of either option. Those traders may be bandits or thieves for all we know. But we don't seem to have much of a choice. If only we'd been able to book passage on the Star.... None of this would be happening!"

Aiwnedil sighed and made one last suggestion to Rôg, "Perhaps the captain would know some reputable traders whom we could trust to take us north?"

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 2:18 AM January 15, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 01-15-2004, 11:02 AM   #52
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Sting

Airefalas took another sip of lukewarm, watery beer and looked around the nearly deserted common room of the Inn of the Crescent Moon. While not luxurious by any stretch of the term, it seemed like a respectable enough establishment. It was clean, anyway, and the pattern of blue and white tile work that covered the walls from the floor to the chair rails throughout the room and arched over the doorways was well-maintained and free of the ever-present layer of dust that seemed to cover so much of everything else in Umbar. The innkeeper looked like any other innkeeper in any one of a hundred inns throughout Middle Earth. There was certainly nothing sinister about the place, at least not as far as Airefalas could see. He wondered why the guard had seemed so reluctant to go there.

Feeling immeasurably better from having gotten both out of the sun and something to drink, Airefalas decided to make himself comfortable for the few minutes he had to spend before returning to the hospitality of Lord Falasmir's palace. He sat back in his chair and looked back over his shoulder to where the guard Raal still stood on post.

"Do you follow shipping at all?" he asked in a friendly tone.

"A little," Raal answered stiffly. "Lord Falasmir's black ships are the pride of Umbar."

“As well they should be,” rejoined Airefalas. “The sight of one on the open sea is enough to give any merchant captain pause.” He took another sip of beer. “Have you ever sailed on one of Lord Falasmir’s ships?”

Raal shook his head. “No.’ He hesitated a moment, then continued. “My cousin has crewed on the Black Eagle. He says it’s an amazing vessel.”

Airefalas nodded ruefully. “She’s taken lots of bounty, I suppose.”

Raal grinned wolfishly. “Lots. Whenever they take a merchant ship - particularly a Gondorian one - Lord Falasmir parades them through the harbor, banners flying. It‘s a magnificent sight.”

“I can imagine,” muttered Airefalas, thinking gloomily of the precarious position of the Lonely Star, berthed as she was between the Black Eagle and her sister. Another idea occurring to him, he half-turned in his chair. “Do you see all the seized ships?”

Raal nodded. “Most of them. The ones Lord Falasmir wants us to see, anyway.”

“Ah.” Airefalas nodded. He was thinking of his own lost ship, the Amarantha, that had been seized by corsairs some months earlier. Turning once again toward the table, he debated whether to ask the guard about her. Finally, he decided why not? He leaned back toward Raal. “There’s one in particular I was wondering about. She would have come in a couple of months back, a Gondorian ship, called the Amarantha.”

The guard looked vague.

“Pretty little ship,” continued Airefalas. “Square rigged. Three masts with a nice, high quarterdeck. She would have come in two, three months ago.”

Thinking hard, Raal came around and took the other seat at Airefalas’ table. He shook his head.

“One of her masts might have been broken.”

“Aha!” Raal nodded triumphantly, his memory finally jogged. “Yes! Blue trim along the sides.”

“That’s the one!” Airefalas nodded, his emotions a mixture of joy at knowing what had become of his ship and a lingering anger at how she had gotten there. Well, at least she hadn’t been scuttled, he said to himself.

“Why do you ask?” asked the guard.

“She belonged to my brother.”

“Ha!” Raal laughed triumphantly and leveled a thick finger at Airefalas face. “Umbar rules the seas!“ Airefalas pointed back and laughed rather wryly, not willing to admit that he had been the captain of the unfortunate vessel. Even so, he could see that the guard was beginning to relax some and decided to see what advantage he could take of it.

Raal shot a nervous look at the door, then signaled the innkeeper for a cup of red wine. “You know there is something else about that ship,” he added once he had taken the first sip of wine. “The captain of the lead ship who took her, the Ravenspar was arrested on his return to port. Something about pilfering the cargo. I guarded him for a spell before he was beheaded.”

“Purely for his own protection, I’m sure,” said Airefalas sarcastically.

The guard grinned. “Lord Falasmir’s spies had told him that the ship had left Dol Amroth fully laden, but by the time she got here, her holds were empty. All Lord Falasmir got was the ransom for the crew and the ship herself. Captain El Anouyi claimed he was innocent, but nobody ever did find out what happened to the cargo.”

“Hmm,” said Airefalas blandly. He knew very well what had happened to the cargo. He had pitched it overboard himself in an attempt to run a bit lighter in the water and perhaps gain a few knots of speed. Poor El Anouyi had had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, beheading was good enough for him. His hospitality had left quite a lot to be desired. By the time the Amarantha’s crew had been ransomed and returned to Minas Tirith, they had been malnourished and half-dead from rowing. Airefalas had not forgotten.

He watched as the guard drained his cup and ordered another. Sensing Raal’s lowering defenses, Airefalas decided to take a chance.

“There is no caravan, is there?” he asked abruptly.

The guard’s expression closed like the door to a prison vault. “There is a caravan,” he said stubbornly. “It approaches from the north.” Pushing away the second cup of wine, untouched, Raal rose to his feet. He nodded toward the door. “It’s time we were going.”

Airefalas nodded and rose to his feet as well, knowing that he had pushed his advantage as far as it was going to take him. Raal may have had a fondness for wine, but he obviously wasn’t stupid. It was time they were getting back to the palace, anyway.
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Old 01-15-2004, 01:51 PM   #53
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Sting

At the urging of Mahat and Seft, Mithadan set out for the palace. But at the outskirts of the market he made one last stop at the stand of a vendor of spirits. There, he ordered three casks, two large and one small, of a potent local liquor made from fermented berries. These he had delivered to the Lonely Star together with a note instructing that they not be opened.

When they arrived at the palace, Mithadan had an hour and a bit more to spare before the reception was to begin. He washed away the grit and sweat of the day and dressed quickly in his best outfit; grey breeches and a white shirt with a royal blue jacket. He was shining his boots when Airefalas entered. His face was a bit grim.

"You've not left yourself much time," Mithadan commented with raised eyebrows.

"I was enjoying some time at a local Inn with Raal," Airefalas responded. "He likes his wine very much and his tongue loosens a bit when lubricated. It seems that our hosts are very proud of their skills as pirates preying upon the ships of Gondor." He went on to relate the story of Falasmir's involvement in the seizure of his last command, the Amarantha. "But Raal insists that there indeed is a caravan approaching."

Mithadan sighed and shook his head. "We are here under Falasmir's own protection," he said. "We must assume that he has no ill intentions towards us. At least we must give the impression of trust, even if we keep our eyes wide open for any threat that may arise."

"Walking open eyed into the spider's web is not my idea of a good situation," Airefalas grumbled as he prepared to bathe. "And it is not of much solace to me that our King will object if we are taken for oarsmen aboard a corsair."

Mithadan waited as his mate readied himself for the dinner. He reappeared soon enough, dressed and rubbing his hair with a towel. "Was your trip to the market profitable?" asked Airefalas.

"Good enough," came the reply. "But we must consider our meeting with the traders."

"What do you wish to purchase?" queried the younger man as he sat beside his captain.

Mithadan considered this question for a moment before aswering. "Furs, fine cloth, herbs and spices...light goods." He passed a purse heavy with gold and silver coins over to Airefalas.

"The wines here are excellent," Airefalas responded. "And they have an exceedingly fine oil pressed from the green fruits of a tree. There would be a good market for such items in Gondor."

Mithadan shook his head and raised his eyes to meet those of his first mate. "I want to travel light on our return," he said. Airefalas nodded as his captain stood. "We will have opportunity to buy such goods next time...if we come back."

At that moment, there came a knock upon the door. Seft entered with a slight bow. "The reception begins," he said. "Come with me, please."

The area around the fountain in the courtyard had been cleared and the many potted plants which had been there were replaced with tables and chairs. Lanterns hung from brackets on the walls and from poles that had been raised around the fountain. The tables were laden with food of every description; meats and fish, breads and fruits, and platters of vegetables and spreads. A harpist sat in the corner strumming and plucking at his strings.

As they entered, a servant handed them each a goblet of chilled wine, golden in color like springwater reflecting the morning sun. A squat balding man in red robes approached as they sipped appreciatively.

"That wine is made from grapes which grow on the coastal lands just north of here," he said as he shook their hands. "There is a red wine which is easily its match in flavor. It will be in great demand in the north I think."

Mithadan nodded with a smile and complimented the color and savor of the drink. Airefalas inquired about crops and seasons even as other traders approached, some accompanied by servants bearing chests from which to display their goods. As they chatted, Mithadan's hand dropped into his pocket. His fingers found the carved wooden figurine of an eagle with a woman's head...
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Old 01-15-2004, 03:35 PM   #54
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Gondor

"My lady..." he said with a slight bow.

Derylin rose at the entrance of the mountainous, dark haired man whose great ham fist swallowed up Cami’s tiny one. ‘He has a wild look to him,’ he thought. His eyes, tracking the big man’s movements, were hard and grey, and the tips of his fingers stayed on the table top, near the hilt of his sword. But Piosenniel had risen also from her chair, and tapped him lightly on his tensed forearm.

Smiling, she nodded to Baran, as he bowed to her. ‘No need for such courtesies in this house, my dear Baran! You are my guest. Please, seat yourself, and be at ease.’ A sturdy oak bench was pulled near, and introductions made. Derylin first – a family friend and her blade-work partner. ‘And sometimes she lets him win,’ whispered Cami, who leaned against Baran’s great thigh, fingering his wondrous beard.

Pio picked up her youngest, and laughed as Derylin arched one brow at her, then winked at Cami. ‘And this is Cami, whom you’ve already had the pleasure of meeting. My youngest daughter.’ Cami wriggled down from her mother’s arms and curtsied to him. ‘And this is Gilwen, my older daughter,’ she continued, placing her hand on the young girl’s shoulder as she came to stand by her mother’s side.

Baran nodded to each as they were introduced, then inquired, ‘And your son?’ He looked around expectantly, recalling the young boy who had asked if his mother was going to kill Baran in the Inn.

‘Oh, here I am!’ came Isilmir’s hurried response. He was running out of the house, an old leather journal of some sort in his hands. He planted himself in front of Baran, and composing himself bowed slightly. ‘Welcome,’ he said, then stepped back a pace, and looked the man up and down. ‘Just as I remember, but much larger closer up,’ he murmured, as he stepped back beside Gilwen, thumping her once on the side of her leg with the book.

‘They’ve been trying to look you up,’ confided Cami, who had slipped in again beside the man.

Another round of cakes was brought out, a bottle of honeyed wine, and juice once again for the children. Derylin stayed for one last glass and a little polite conversation, then begged off, saying he must get back to the city. The children, their curiosity appeased for the while, drifted off to other games and schemings.

Pio refilled Baran’s glass, then leaned back in her chair. ‘You mentioned Imladris when I met you in the Inn,’ she said, setting her own untasted glass on the table beside her. ‘And that you brought tidings.’

She leaned forward slightly, studying the man on the bench. ‘May I ask what they are?’

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Old 01-16-2004, 04:04 PM   #55
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Baran smiled broadly. "Well now," he said. "You are hasty, aren't you. I told you why I was seeking Bird while we were at the Inn. I was hoping to find word about the Maenwaith from her. It has been a long time since I left the lands of the Beornings, nearly seven years. I passed over the Misty Mountains, where I discovered that Orcs and Trolls yet live, though they are a bit more shy than they used to be." He grinned in an almost feral fashion at the memory.

"Then I wandered for some time in the land known as Eriador, where I found no sign of Bird or my distant kin. Then I eventually passed into the north where I came upon The Shire, the home of the renowned Bilbo Baggins. It was there that I found the Green Dragon Inn and at last had news of Bird at least. News that was years old, but at least I knew that she travelled to Gondor in the company of you, your children, and your husband (none could recall his name). But none could tell me precisely where Gondor was.

"I headed back east at the advise of several Hobbits and reached what the locals called Buckland. There I was introduced to one Meriadoc Brandybuck, who knew both of you and Gondor. He showed me a map, which he said had been made by Bilbo himself long ago, while he lived in Rivendell, or so I was told."

Baran sipped as his wine and paused to serve himself some more cake. Then his eyes narrowed as he continued. "Gondor was on that map," he said. "And something else. Do you know what was on that map?"

Piosenniel shook her head politely. Patience was not high on her list of virtues. But Baran seemed intent upon telling his story his own way and in his own good time. "What did you find on the map?" she asked, attempting to prod the Beorning along.

"In the far south," he continued. "Well south of here even. In a land called Harad, there was an inscription on the map, even at the very edge of the parchment. It read, 'Here There Be Dragons'!" he concluded triumphantly.

He smiled broadly and spread his arms wide as if those words explained everything. Piosenniel blinked twice, then counted to ten under her breath in an attempt to regain her patience. "So?" she asked in a strained voice. "What does that mean?"

"You don't know?" asked Baran almost increduously. "Bird never told you? Legend has it that the greatest of the Maenwaith, only the most skilled of their leaders, can take the form of the dragon!"

Piosenniel spluttered in frustration and annoyance. "That?" she cried. "That is your great, all so important news? An inscription on a map?"

"Here, here," said Baran with a frown. "I wouldn't get so worked up about things were I you. I know what I'm saying. You see, Merry doubted me also. He suggested that I stop by Rivendell, Imladris you know, and ask there rather than heading right off to this Harad place. So I did! I spent nigh on a year there in their library. Nearly ate them out of house and home." He laughed for a moment. Piosenniel remained silent, keeping her thoughts prudently to herself.

"It took a long time, but I found it," he continued as he reached into his rucksack and removed a scroll. "The tale of the were-wyrms of the Last Desert. It seems some Elves traveled far south long ago, an age or so ago. They set up a camp on the edge of a desert in a pleasant enough area. But after a month or so, some men appeared. Wild, they were, short and olive skinned. They told the Elves that they didn't belong there and that they should leave. The Elves refused.

"Three times this happened, then the men did not return for some time. A few months later, they returned. Many of them. They surrounded the Elven camp, but made no hostile move. Indeed, they bore no arms! Then, in the middle of the night, they lit fires and stood as if they were waiting for something. And something came. A great red dragon. It swooped down on the Elven camp and set fire to some of their homes. Then it landed near a group of the men, out of range of the Elven bows. The men walked down into the camp and said 'Leave now or the Wyrm will drive you away.' Then the men and the dragon disappeared. The Elves returned to the northlands; they left the next morning in fact. Their leader, one Silmir, wrote this scroll before he set off into the West..."

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 5:05 PM January 16, 2004: Message edited by: Mithadan ]
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Old 01-16-2004, 07:26 PM   #56
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Thorn

After leaving a message at the Cat's Paw, warning Rama in their clan's curling script, for he perceived the tension might grow in Umbar regarding the Gondorians, Thorn returned to the palace, spending the rest of the afternoon scuttling about, trying to gain more information where he could. And after having spent quite a while in the kitchens and servant’s quarters hoping in vain for any crumbs of information to be let slip from Falasmir’s staff, he departed planning to wait for Ráma, hoping that she might have learned something of use to them. For little had been said by the servants, busy in preparation for the evening’s banquet. And now as the guests where arriving, he feared for his safety in any form he chose to cloth himself in, whether from being trampled or drawing attention to himself, to being recognized.

Carefully moving down the corridor, thankful for the potted palms that had been brought in to adorn the hallways, something caught his eye. The gauzy and blowing curtain reminding him once again of the guest’s quarters that the intricately patterned fabric screened from the more public areas of the palace. Quickly darting under the curtain before the guard receiving the invitees at the door caught sight of him, Thorn ran toward Wyrma’s room.

Now that the reception had begun, he had hopes of finding the chamber empty and Wyrma occupied elsewhere, so that he might have a second look, but as he neared the place he had to scurry for the dark dusty corner of an adjacent doorway. For he had heard a voice that struck a note of recognition in him, and suddenly a plainly dressed woman quickly exited the room tucking a weighty purse in among the folds of her robe. Too weighty indeed, to have been her own, given her appearance.

Pushing a dusty cobweb from his face and whiskers in an off-hand way Thorn pondered her briefly as she made her way down the hall. What purchase would Wyrma require that she would send her woman out into the streets of Umbar at night, weighted with gold? And when Falasmir had instructed his staff to see to her needs, as well. Something of interest may lie behind this, and at present it afforded him his best opportunity of the day.

Racing down the hall, Thorn found the woman just as she was pulling a side door to, behind her. Trying to fit under it, he found that he could not, but after a moment’s thought was forced to scale the door and squeeze through the gap between wall and roof tiles. Impatient with the delay and wobbling as he balanced the weight of his small body, he slowly made his way to the ground and down the path to the city behind the woman.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 1:27 PM January 18, 2004: Message edited by: Hilde Bracegirdle ]
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Old 01-16-2004, 11:01 PM   #57
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Pipe

After excusing himself from his cousins Korpúlfr casually made his way towards the house his hands clenched behind his back in thoughtful contemplation as he crossed the court yard, his excursion with Tinar offered up many possibilities, but also offered him a good excuse to go down to the harbour and have a look at that Gondorian ship. Stepping into the ornate hallway of his Umbar house, the little brown sparrow that had flown past him at the stables now flapped impatiently about his head.

"So your ready to see the sights of the great city of the Cosairs" he laughed dryly. The sparrow followed him down the hallway to a small library at the back of the house, the room was especially designed and situated so that none of the Haradwaith staff could witness the secret comings and goings of his clan. Closing the door behind them he crossed to open the shuttered window, then turning he shrank down into his own bird form, A raven. The blue purple iridescence of his sleek black feathers and the dark brown of the birds sharp eyes marking the similarities to his base form. With a shake of his shaggy throat feather he spread his wings and took to the sky closely followed by the young sparrow, an unusual sight to be sure but not one that the self involved people of Umbar would take notice of.

"So where too first Kor?" the young Wyrm asked between wing beats.

Korpúlfr surpressed a cringe he hated Tinar's use of the abbreviation of his name, but he tolerated it, he needed to become the young mans friend and mentor if he was to attain his own goals and ambitions, even if it meant tolerating the rumours about his father. Stretching his wings wide he glided on the warm air currents to allow the smaller bird to keep up.

"How about the harbour, the life line of Umbar's trading?" he suggested casually, "Then perhaps by the time we return the trading will have begun and we can take a walk through the market streets."

"Sounds good to me, isn't that Gondorian Merchant ship in port, I think I too would like to get a closer look!" Tinar peeped and Korpúlfr caught the sly glint in the young birds beady eye.

With slow wing beats Korpúlfr circled and glided around the many towers and spires of the wealthier area of the city, pointing out the more prominent buildings to Tinar, they passed over the broad arc of the market and swooped down to meet the fresh tang of the sea air were the currents changed from warm to cool through his feathers. Korpúlfr withheld his usual arielbatics infront of Tinar the freedom and exhilaration of his raven form something he wished to keep to himself.

The white sails of the Gondorian merchant ship stood out against the black of the two three masted, Corsair war ships berthed either side of her. "The Black Eagle the pride of Lord Falasmir's fleet!" Tinar proudly announced as he again caught up to the larger bird, Korpúlfr grinned the young man like himself had obviously had the sense to find out more about his host before coming to the city, though he himself was no stranger with the palace, he dealt mostly with the ladies of the court or the palace staff, very seldom did he meet the lord himself and he wanted to be prepared.

"And the Black Hawk her sister ship!" he finished, circling the second ship. There was a sense of relaxed tension from both ships, as though they were waiting for something.

"I want to take a take a closer look!" Tinar exclaimed as they flew above the Gondorian ship, but before he could protest the small sparrow effortlessly flew down weaving in and out of the rigging, with a shake of his feathery head and a click of his beak he perched himself above the crows nest. A crew man on the rigging gave him a cursory look to which he gave a raucous caw and moved of to a lower sail arm. The crew of this ship were more restless and on edge and nearly every man kept a suspicious or nervous eye on the two ships that flanked them, oh they all seemed busy and unconcerned, but to Korpúlfr who all his life had to hide his true feelings and concerns, to maintain the illusion that he was no more than on of the very people he hated, the signs were clear.

"I've seen enough, I wish to leave now!" Tinar announced as he returned from sweeping the ship, Korpúlfr realised that it had been sometime since they left the house and that the young man must have been struggling to keep his present form, so he nodded his assent but as they flew from the ship, he began to regret his father decision to trade they best wares, narrowing his eyes and looking back at the three ships he couldn't help wondering if his goods would not some how find their way on to one of lord Falasmir's merchant ships!

"Did you hear anything interesting?" he asked his young companion, trying to abate his suspicions.

"No, not really, they are eager to set sail and return to their own lands, the sooner the better I say!" the young man laughed casually, but behind him Korpúlfr frowned and cocked his feathered head pondering if Tinar was hiding something from him or if he was really as blind as he was making out, it was more than evident that that ship was going nowhere soon!

As they reached the market Korpúlfr flew ahead leading the son of the head wyrm to the roof of a fair sized shop, at the rear end of the building was a hole only just large enough for him to fit through, once inside Tinar immediately shook of him bird form and reverting to his base form, his black curly hair shaking as he shook his head. Korpúlfr flew down from the roof beam, but instead of the scratch of claws on the hard wooden floor of the dusty loft, there was a soft thud as Korpúlfr's boots hit the floor. Fixing his tunic he threw open the loft door and climbed down stairs, Tanir close behind him.

"Master, how good to see you!" the startled shopkeeper said as they entered the shop front, then he hurried himself to greet them, Korpúlfr stopped him with a raised hand. "I'm just giving my friend here a tour of the city and what would a tour be without visiting the Raven's Nest, eh?" the two men laughed. Korpúlfr turned to see Tinar run his hand over a rich cinnamon silk .

"There's no finer silks in all of Harad." he grinned confidently.

"I'm sure" the young man laughed.
A small bell rang as he opened the front door, "Now stay close the market can be a dangerous place" he warned .

"I'm not a child, I can look after myself!" Tinar growled, a slight hint of disdain in he eyes, but it past and was replaced by an eager smile. "Come on!"

Korpúlfr lead Tinar through the busy market, past food vendors, rival spice traders, jewellers, potters, and many other wonderful trade stalls, but always heading in the direction of the palace and only pausing when something caught the young mans eye. Korpúlfr stood next to the tent of a local carver, grinning as Tinar tried to haggling over the price of a gold dragon armlet, he was just about to intervene as the trader grew insulted by Tinar's low offers, when a palace guard swept past him sticking his head into the carvers tent.

"It grows late, we must return to the palace!" he heard the guard growl then an instant later a tall, fair skinned man exited the tent his arms laden with purchases, stray strands of dark hair could be seen under the white cloth he wore on his head. So this is one of the foreign traders! he thought, watching the tall man pass, but something in his hand caught his eye, the small carving of a bird with a womans head. Frowning he waited till the foreigner and his escort were out of sight then he entered the carvers tent. He scanned the finely carved pieces till he found what he was looking for, picking up the figure of a man with a wolves head, he feigned a puzzled frown.

"What are these?" he asked.

"Skinchangers, animals that can take the form of men" the old man replied.

"Skinchangers, they are only bed time stories used to frighten children, I'm no child old man!" he laughed.

"Believe what you will young man, but I tell ye they are real and dangerous!" the old man warned

"Who would believe in such things?" he asked mockingly.

"The foreigners! that's who, as a matter of fact there was one in here a minute ago asking about them!" the trader went on, clearly offended by his mocking tones.

"Thank you," he grinned tossing a few copper to the old man and leaving with the wolf head figurine. Slipping the figure into his pocket he walked over to Tinar and informed him that it was time they were leaving, the young man quickly settled a price and followed him towards the palace.

After leaving Tinar, he went to the quarters assigned to him. His quarters were small and not as fine as those he knew Tinar and his mother would be furnished with, but they would suffice after all he didn't plan to stay long. His cousin Jahr was there waiting for him.

"What kept you there is little under an hour before the banquet begins?" But he barely heard his cousins words as he paced up and down, rubbing at his temples as he tried to make sense of all that he had learnt that afternoon.

"What's wrong?" Jahr asked concerned, Korpúlfr looked up but said nothing instead he pulled out the carving and handed it to his cousin. Jahr gasped, "Where did you get this?"

"A trader in the market" he answered absently, "But he is old and no one would believe his stories as anything more than just that, but what does concern me is the fact that one of the Gondorian's asked him about our people!" he said shaking his head.

"I don't have time to puzzle this just now if I am to be ready on time, pushing his concerns aside temporarily , he freshened up and made his way towards the opulent banquet hall.

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Old 01-17-2004, 12:31 AM   #58
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As Airefalas followed Mithadan and the guard, Seft, down the stairs to the courtyard where the reception was to be held, he found himself thinking about faith, the stalwart belief in something that bears an utter lack of proof. As a sailor from the tender age of nine, when his father had first sent him to sea to make of man of him, Airefalas had an abundance of faith. All sailors did: faith that their vessel could bear the stresses put upon her by the open sea, that fair winds would follow foul, and faith that the stars that led them out of port would remain in their tracks to guide the seafarers home again at journey‘s end. What he had not expected when he signed on for this particular journey was how much his faith would be tested. In addition to the usual demands on his faith, he now found himself faced with several he had not foreseen: the faith that Lord Falasmir would treat them honorably; the faith that Mithadan had a plan should Lord Falasmir prove false; and the faith that he, Airefalas, would live through the evening.

He let his gaze fall on the tall figure of Mithadan ahead of him. He found it disconcerting the way Mithadan played his hand so close to the vest, telling Airefalas only what he needed to know to function in a given moment but not much else. A lifelong chess player, Airefalas liked to plan for contingencies in advance, to think things out several moves ahead, and to have a secondary plan of action in mind should the first not work out. He was more than capable of thinking on his feet and making the split second decisions that were sometimes necessary for survival, but he had always been of the mind that a little preparation could go a long way in a pinch. While it was clear to him that Mithadan did have some kind of plan in mind should things go awry, his captain had intimated to Airefalas very little in terms of what that plan might be. He didn't know whether it was because Mithadan had not yet decided whether he could fully trust his new first mate, or whether it came simply as the result of a lifetime of self-reliance on the part of the captain. Either way, Airefalas felt slightly adrift and very much reliant on his sailor's supply of faith.

It didn't help matters, either, that Airefalas suspected Mithadan of having a secondary purpose there in Umbar, as well, one that had nothing to do caravans, traders, or even Lord Falasmir. He had no idea what it was, though it was obviously some personal matter. On a few rare occasions, he had tried subtly to draw Mithadan out on the subject, but had always been rebuffed; pleasantly and politely rebuffed, but rebuffed all the same. Finally, he gave it up, acknowledging to himself that to pry into Mithadan's personal affairs was none of his business, anyway. It was certainly beyond his duty and station as first mate. He wished he could approach Mithadan on a even footing, as captain to captain, but he knew it could never happen. The simple fact was that Airefalas was no longer a captain in his own right. He was a first mate and, he reminded himself, it would serve him well to remember that. Even so, questions gnawed at the back of his mind. He couldn't help but wonder how much this other matter was influencing Mithadan in his dealings with Umbar. Or if it had any bearing at all.

Sighing, Airefalas tried hard to put it all out of his mind. Faith. He felt the weight of Mithadan’s purse in his pocket and reminded himself of the confidence his captain had placed in him to deal with the traders. That was something he could do, and do very well. Taking the wine that was offered him as he entered the reception, Airefalas moved confidently amongst the assembly of traders, talking crops, growing seasons, and prices. Always prices. He enjoyed the endless dickering and negotiations immensely. He had a talent for it, which he supposed he had inherited from his father who had started his business with a single purseful of borrowed money and one rickety ship. By the time he had died, an old man, he had had in his possession a small fleet of ships. Of course, they all belonged to Avarlond now, Airefalas’ older brother, fourteen years his senior. As the second son, all Airefalas had gotten from his father, in the end, was his father’s good looks and a knack for making his way in the world. Airefalas breathed in the aroma of flowers as he bent over a sampling of delicate saffron threads that had been carried in from the lands far beyond the Great Desert.

“Saffron,” said the attending merchant, a small, birdlike fellow, dressed in robes the color of the spice he sold. “Vegetable gold. Look closely, sir. You will see only the red of the female stigmas, no yellow. ”

Airefalas nodded, bending forward to take a closer look. It was indeed saffron of the highest quality. It would be prized like gold in the nobler kitchens of Gondor. As he entered into negotiations with the little man for the purchase of his saffron, he saw Mithadan standing nearby, his hand in his pocket and a faraway look in his grey eyes seeming, for at least that instant, many miles away. Watching him, Airefalas felt suddenly confident that though things may not go as planned or even as hoped, he and Mithadan would not be dying that night.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 5:41 PM January 17, 2004: Message edited by: Ealasaide ]
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Old 01-17-2004, 03:48 AM   #59
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Rog

His companion was in a fretful mood. Aiwendil's last words to Rog were spoken in an uneasy tone, almost, as if things were slipping away from him and he could not see his way through this problem. ‘If only . . .’ he had said in a wishful way. With a sigh, the old man had recollected himself a bit and suggested a solution, though left it for Rog to carry through on it.

Not that Rog minded doing this. He had been doing just such for his companion during the course of their acquaintance and travels. But lately it seemed Aiwendil had become less sure of himself. And now as they traveled further into areas unfamiliar to him Aiwendil seemed less skilled in meeting the unplanned for situations which arose. Rog wrote it off this time as the fretting of an old man. ‘Rest yourself,’ he said in a kindly manner. ‘I’ll speak with the captain.’ He stepped toward the door. ‘And tea. I’ll bring us both back a cup. The galley always has a kettle on the boil.’

The passage to the stern was easier this time. To his surprise and delight, his stomach did not betray him in this form. Faragaer was standing near the helm when Rog approached, and motioned him up to where he stood. ‘Keep her steady,’ he advised the helmsman as he invited Rog to take a seat in on the bench outside his cabin.

Faragaer was interested in how Rog knew they would not be entering the Haven of Umbar, since he could not recall discussing it with him. Rog shrugged it off saying he had heard it mentioned in passing by some sailors as he hung over the ship’s railing. ‘My companion wondered if there were some traders well known to you and trustworthy who will be at the cove you do intend to anchor in, and who might let us travel with them to the city.’

The captain wrinkled his brow, considering the merchants who were meeting him. ‘Yes, there is a small group of them, I think who will be heading back north to Umbar – the ones who are picking up the crates of quail. Good men, and fair. I’ll ask them to see you safely to your destination.’ Rog thanked the captain, asking just how many days of land travel he thought it would be from their landing place. ‘Two at the most – they travel quickly with horses and wagons,’ Faragaer replied. ‘And we should reach the cove later tonight.’

‘This is good,’ Rog thought to himself as he made his way back to their cabin with two steaming cups of tea laced with honey. ‘We can slip into the city unnoticed in the midst of the trading caravan, pick up a few supplies, and be on our way south.’ He pushed open the door to his cabin with his foot, calling out Aiwendil’s name . . .

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Old 01-17-2004, 03:49 PM   #60
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Gondor

‘Bird never told you?’ he said, a frown puckering his brow. ‘Legend has it that the greatest of the Maenwaith, only the most skilled of their leaders, can take the form of the dragon.’

‘I knew it!’ she chortled to herself. She gave her mental image of Bird a poke in the side. ‘I was not wrong to think that she could do this, to push her, as it were.’ Pio shook her head in wonder. ‘But what of this legend that the most skilled of their leaders are the ones to do this?’ she murmured, as Baran finished this explanation. His voice had drifted off; he went no further. In a moment of exasperation she snapped at him, wanting more information, more proof.

‘By the One!’ she thought, as he went on. ‘If only we had had this information from the start. Bird and I could have followed it to its source.’ She looked hard at the mountain of a man who had now picked up his tale and was chuckling over some reference to food and Rivendell. ‘What other tidbits of information might he have stored away in the nooks and crannies of that great skull of his?’

Her attention was drawn back to his words with his reaching into his rucksack and the withdrawal of a scroll. ‘Copied,’ she wondered, ‘or “borrowed”?’ She couldn’t tell from where she sat. ‘It took a long time, but I found it,’ he was saying, ‘the tale of the were-wyrms of the Last Desert.’

She listened closely to the Elvish retelling of the incident, the lines between her brows deepening. Bird was the only Skinchanger she knew, and all her understanding of them was based on her long friendship with the woman. Small, and olive skinned – that she could reconcile with her knowledge of Bird. But the attack on the Elven houses, though the scroll mentioned no one was killed, she could not see Bird doing that. Not unless the Elves had done something that could be construed as evil or horrendous. Bird would have thought of something else – organized great swarms of gnats to bedevil them or quick and sneaky fleas to terrorize their tender flesh until they left in frustration. Pio followed her own line of thought about the dragon – had it been her, and she felt her ‘homeland’ threatened, then perhaps she would have brought the dragon. But not to just drive the Elves away – she would have left no survivors to carry the tale away with them.

Another line of thought niggled at the back of her mind. A map she had once seen at Sam’s house in the Shire, when she had gone there with her friend, Cami Goodchilde. A Dwarven map – there were mentions of dragons on it, near some great mountain east of the Hithaeglir; east of Thranduil’s forest, as she recalled, and then again north – in some place referred to as the Withered Heath. Seeing her interest, Sam had let her read some of what had been written in the old red leather book. The Last Desert – that was where she had heard that phrase before! And some reference Bilbo had made to the Were-wyrms. He had been talking to the Dwarves who had come to enlist his aid. ‘Tell me what you want done,’ she recalled him saying, ‘and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.’

'East of east' – and now here was Baran telling her there were olive skinned people and dragons with them in the south.

Baran’s face was looking at her in expectation, his voice now silent. From the corner of her eye she saw Cook motioning to her. She nodded at Cook, then spoke to Baran. ‘You have brought me more information than I can digest at this moment. Will you stay for supper,’ she asked, standing up from her chair. He stood also, towering above her by a number of inches. She could not tell from his expression if he meant to go now that he had spoken with her or would stay a while longer. She had, after all, said nothing yet about Bird, or where she might be.

‘The meal will be nothing fancy,’ she continued, hoping he would follow as she stepped toward the dining room. ‘And I will apologize beforehand, there will be no meat. Except for the occasional offering from the river or sea, I prefer not to eat it. But there will be plenty to fill your appetite. Cook’s good loaves of whole grain breads, and honey and thimbleberry jam from my neighbor, cheeses also, and fruits, as we can get them at this time of year. And thick bean soup spiced with herbs to drive away the evening’s chill. Will you come?’

He hesitated, then stepped forward. She chatted with him as they walked along, drawing him out on other topics of interest to her.

‘Please, if you listen at all to a skeptic’s pleas,’ she thought, as they all stood by their chairs at the table and faced West for the brief, silent moment before the meal began. ‘Let him have “borrowed” the map, also.’

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Old 01-17-2004, 05:59 PM   #61
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Korpúlfr confidently strode through the banquet hall to the open courtyard were the reception was to take place, he was pleased to see that Jahr had not only set out his samples, but made sure that various dishes had been prepared so that their potential buyers could sample his goods and see how they might be used to full effect.

Smiling satisfactorily he lifted a goblet from a passing servant. Circling the goblet thoughtfully in his hands, he raised it to his nose and inhaled, the distinct sweet, woody aroma of the cinnamon that complimented the sharp fruity flavour of the aged red wine within, bringing a knowing smile to his thin lips. It had been he that had convinced the local wine merchant that his fathers cinnamon would complement the sharpness of the aged red, though he knew the old man would never admit as much, but it mattered not to him, for as long as the beverage proved popular; which it did, especially at Falasmir's court, he would profit considerably.

Korpúlfr's father had spent the last fifteen years building their family business and establishing them as the finest traders of spices and silk in all of the Southland's. So much so that they had run many smaller traders out of business. Taking a sip of the sharp red he grinned to himself. He couldn't wait to pull Umbar's most profitable trade out from under their very noses! As soon as their people were united and they established their own cities, he intended to do just that.

He positively loathed having to pay Umbar's trade taxes each month, handing his peoples hard earned gold over to the lazy, weak minded fools of Umbar who claimed lordship of the city and the out lying areas and now with the thought that his goods might fall into Falasmir's hands he loathed them more. But he was a disciplined young man and held his thoughts in check, soon he thought, very soon!

As he carefully set down his goblet he glanced around the busy courtyard, every respected Merchant of Umbar was gathered to show off the very best that Umbar had to offer. But the question that now played on his mind was why? He was more than certain that their gracious host was going to seize the Gondorian merchant ship, So why go to so much trouble to impress?

As he pondered that thought his gaze fell on the tall dark haired man he had see in the market, but with him was another man, darker of skin, slim of build, but just as tall. He watched with growing interest as the two men were assailed by various merchants trying to impress with their knowledge and wit.

Like Vultures around fresh meat he mused to himself.

Always let them come to you my son! his father always told him and sure enough it was not long before the darker skinned foreigner approached to examine his wares.

"Saffron" he said, watching as the man examined the threads he had on display.

"Vegetable gold. Look closely, sir. You will see only the red of the female stigmas, no yellow." he boasted proudly, it was that which made this spice the most sought after in all the Southland's.

He smiled, pleased as the Gondorian negotiated a price for several crates of the spice. Korpúlfr quickly became glad that he had began the bartering overly high as it soon became apparent the foreigner was accustom to the skill of barter and would not be easily duped. But Korpúlfr still managed to settle on a price that was profitable to him.

"The names Korpúlfr! It has been a pleasure doing business with you." he grinned warmly extending his hand in a friendly gesture.

"If you seek to lighten your purse further, you and your friend may be interested in seeing our fine selection of hand spun silks, popular with the fine ladies of court." He continued, motioning them to another table filled with various hues and textures of the fine material. As they spoke he kept a curious eye on the older man, the one who had openly asked about his people in the market! Distrust and suspicion growing in his mind.

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Old 01-17-2004, 09:34 PM   #62
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Ráma

Ráma had dallied at the Cat's Paw as long as she had dared. She had tried on two different gowns for that evening's reception and then packed away the last of her provisions anticipating an early departure in the morning. With considerable reluntance, she left the Inn and, mounted on Kyelek, headed back towards the palace at a slow lope, taking as long as she could manage to find her way across the city.

Showing her credentials at the gate, Ráma readily approached the reception area, observing that the main hall was already spilling over with guests. A throng of traders crowded around the strangers, attempting to impress the men from Gondor with the quality of their wares. The first thing Rama noticed was that she was virtually the only female in attendance. All of the onlookers were men, most of them wearing the heavy robes that were reserved for the members of Umbar's wealthiest guilds. In this situation Ráma felt doubly out of place, both as a woman, and as a member of the desert tribes whom the established merchants regarded with little favor.

Dozens of male eyes turned greedily to the entrance as Ráma ambled from the outside courtyard towards the center of the hall. The young woman shifted uncomfortably and stared down towards the ground. Male or female, no member of her own clan would willingly draw public attention in such an open fashion. There was always the risk that someone from outside might inquire too closely as to who she really was.

Ráma tugged nervously on the edge of her embroidered vest, reflecting that she should have dressed more soberly, since there were so few women or desert dwellers in attendance. The Men of Umbar were protective of their wives and daughters, discouraging them from attendance at official functions. Undoubtedly these strangers from across the seas had similar restrictive customs. Thank goodness, her own people had more wisdom than that. Strict separation of the genders made no sense when both men and women were equally capable of taking on the most powerful forms.

At least she did not have to worry about pushing her wares. The men of Gondor probably had little appreciation or knowledge of horseflesh and would scarcely want to bother with crafting a stall on their ship for the comfort of her animals. And, frankly, she would not want to sell them to strangers. It was bad enough having to trade her beloved stallions to the aristocrats of Umbar. Sending them far across the seas to a distant, unknown land would be even worse.

Resigned to spending an evening of boredom, Ráma carefully avoided those few merchants attempting to engage her in conversation. Instead, she quietly retreated to a small balcony that jutted out over the palace gardens. Perched on a chair beside the stone balustrade, she stared up at the stars, counting the minutes till the reception ended when she could resume her journey homeward and be reunited with family and kin.

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Old 01-18-2004, 03:23 PM   #63
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Heads turned as Falasmir entered the hall. Wyrma and several of his ministers were close behind him, and a group of younger and less important courtiers, among them Tinar, followed in their wake. The tradespeople bowed low as their ruler passed, momentarily silent.

Wyrma noted the buzz of renewed conversation behind them. This was her first appearance with Falasmir at an official function, and she knew that many curious eyes gazed at her. Looking around, she realized that the curiosity apparently had more reason than the mere fact that she was a stranger. As far as she could see, she was the only female in the room! The Umbarian traders were all male, as were those of the various desert peoples.

So, they hide their women from the northern strangers? she thought wryly. Suddenly it occurred to her that the only reason she had seen the women of the court was because she herself was female. Still, the women here were not normally completely isolated, though they usually veiled their faces in public places.

She did not flatter herself by thinking that the stares that encountered her this evening were in admiration of her appearance, but a foreign woman at Falasmir’s side in an official function was bound to raise questions in the minds of those who saw her. If they only knew, she thought, but her true nature was hidden, and she preferred to have it that way.

She was not here to trade on this occasion, but noted with approval that several of her people, among others her son’s friend Korpúlfr, were presenting their wares. The city-kingdom of which she dreamed would need merchants with contacts to neighbouring countries. Would they also profit from contact with the great northern kingdom? She gazed at the tall captain and his first mate, wondering how their fate would affect that of her people.
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Old 01-19-2004, 12:28 AM   #64
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Ealasaide’s post

As Airefalas completed negotiations with the saffron merchant, he felt pleased. The price had not gone quite as low as he had hoped, but it was still lower, several times over, than the price the spice would fetch at market in Gondor. Mithadan would be able to turn a very handsome profit. He smiled as the merchant extended his hand.

"The name's Korpulfr," the man said warmly. "It has been a pleasure doing business with you."

"And with you," answered Airefalas. "I am Airefalas."

"If you seek to lighten your purse further, you and your friend may be interested in seeing our fine selection of hand spun silks." Korpulfr gestured toward another table that was strewn with various hues and textures of the fine material.

“Thank you.” Airefalas followed the merchant’s gesture with his eyes. He had already purchased a few bolts of silk at Umbar’s marketplace, including one for his fiancée Isabel in the exact shade of blue that matched her lovely eyes, and one in deep green for his mother. Upon seeing Korpulfr’s offerings, he wished he had waited.

He looked around for Mithadan, repeating to himself like a litany, “Furs, fine cloth, herbs and spices...” The silks would definitely qualify. He had just begun to move in the direction of the colorful fabrics when a fanfare sounded at the end of the courtyard. The doors swung open and Lord Falasmir himself appeared, accompanied by a host of attendants and courtiers. Finding Mithadan amongst the crowd of merchants, Airefalas moved in his direction and took up a position just behind his captain’s right shoulder. As for what happened next, he would wait for Mithadan’s cue.

He watched as Lord Falasmir made his way down the courtyard, greeting with a smile each of the merchants with whom he already shared a personal acquaintance, passing by those with whom he did not. It wasn’t until some minutes had passed that Airefalas noticed the squat, older woman who walked at Lord Falasmir’s right hand. Her iron-gray hair was pulled tightly back from her square-jawed face, upon which lay an expression of austere determination. All about her rested an aura of power.

Airefalas whistled under his breath. “I’d hate to have her for a mother-in-law,” he said softly to Mithadan. “Who do you suppose she is?”

Silently, Mithadan gave his head a slight shake, communicating to Airefalas either that he didn’t know or that Airefalas should be quiet. Since Airefalas wasn’t quite sure which Mithadan meant, he fell silent.

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

Child’s post – Rama

The great fanfare of horns announcing the arrival of Falasmir momentarily lured Ráma a few feet out of her hiding place. She stood against the wall on the far side of the room, staring across at the entourage which was making its way to the center of the floor. For one moment, her eyes fixed on the regal Lord who was surrounded by a bevy of admirers, some bending low, others respectfully inclining their heads. Ráma's direct dealings with this gentleman had been few, and she intended to keep it that way.

Quickly surveying the advisors who now stood at Falasmir's side, Ráma felt her heart thump furiously against her chest. For, next to Falasmir, just a little to his right, stood the one individual whom Ráma truly hoped to avoid. Yet she should not have been surprised, since Thorn had warned her of Wyrma's presence earlier that afternoon.

Seeing the familiar ramrod features, Ráma instinctively pulled back to the safety of her porch. A host of memories flooded through her mind. A clan gathering long ago, when she had been but a child..... Her mother had taken her by the hand and pulled her to the side of the crowd where she could get a clear look at the great Wyrm. And then Ayar had leaned over, whispering in her ear, Do not let her see you, child, for someday your safety and even that of our clan may depend on it. But press the Wyrm's face into your mind, and do not let it go. Then Ayar had led her out through a secret passage at the back of the tent and explained that neither she nor any other Eagle would be returning to this place again.

That was the last time Ráma had seen the Wyrm. But the face had seered into her brain, and still haunted her dreams at night, and now they both stood in the same room again. All thoughts of trying to find out why Wyrma had come speedily fled. Ráma abruptly turned about and began walking towards the door, intending to leave the palace and retreat to the safety of the Cat's Paw, perhaps even packing up her belongings and leaving the city in the middle of the night.

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Old 01-19-2004, 04:19 AM   #65
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Rog

A sliver of moon hung low on the eastern rim of the sea. The waves picked up the yellowed light, throwing it from one to another in a widening, rippling pattern until it faded out against the side of The Gull. Rog leaned on the railing watching the illusion as the moon and ship moved south in tandem.

‘Are you feeling ill, sir,’ came the quiet voice of the sailor on watch as he passed by. Rog smiled, his back to the man, as he heard the familiar scrape of the bucket across the deck. ‘No, Arallas, but I thank you for your concern. For now I’m feeling fine.’ He fumbled with his hand for the small lantern he had hung on the upright post to his left that held the railing. ‘Do you have a light for this, by chance?’ he asked, as the man made to move on. Rog had brought his satchel up to the deck with him, intending to make a few notes in his journal before they arrived at their so called port.

‘No lights, sir,’ said Arallas, ‘by the Captain’s orders.’

Rog had wondered why the usual lamps were not lit fore and aft when he’d come up. Now that he looked about again, there were none of the crew smoking either. And a look back toward where the shoreline should be showed him they had pulled further out to sea. ‘No lights?’ he asked, waiting for further explanation.

‘None at all, sir,’ came the quick reply. ‘We’re running dark past the Havens tonight. The Captain wishes to draw no attention to our passage.’ Rog declined the man’s offer to see him below deck and to his cabin. With a nod to him, Arallas moved on, continuing his rounds.

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

The moon moved further up the night sky, obscured at times by the thin bands of scattered clouds. Several hours had passed and still the darkness found Rog looking out to sea, though by now he had traded his leaning against the rail for the comfort of a small crate pulled near to sit on.

The Gull, once past the cluster of lights that marked the city at the head of the bay, now veered in a southeasterly direction, back toward the coastline. ‘Land soon!’ he thought to himself, eager to have a firm, stable surface beneath his feet once again. His eyes strained to see where the ship might put in.

From the helm, the order rang out to ‘heave to, lads’, and Rog watched with growing bafflement as the ship’s sails were adjusted and the movement of the rudder felt. They were stopped a ways off shore, and now as he stood and peered toward the strand he could see a small covey of various sized boats coming out through the surf to meet them. Ten in all, they came abeam, and a number of the crew of each came aboard to meet with the Captain and First Mate.

Business was soon done; goods and monies exchanged; the traders eager to get back to their companions on shore. In exchange for a small cask of honeyed mead from the northern horselands, a group of traders led by Mas’ud, agreed to see Aiwendil and Rog north to the city.

‘Come, come,’ urged the thickset merchant as he climbed down the rope ladder to the waiting skiff. His two sons, Qasim and Umar, had already gone ahead in the larger boats, the crates of quail with them, cages secured with ropes. All were expected to help row the small boat back to shore.

Rog’s palms chafed against the thick oar as he pulled against the sea’s swells. For one moment he considered how easy it would be just to wing his way inland, but his eye caught the movement of Aiwendil as he bent into the rowing, his gnarled hands firm on the tightly wound, rope grip. With a heavy sigh, Rog pushed himself to continue the rhythm of his strokes.

‘If the old fellow can do it,’ he thought, biting back a barely suppressed groan as the wet rope bit into his skin, ‘so can I . . .

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Old 01-19-2004, 04:37 PM   #66
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Mithadan and Airefalas bowed before Falasmir, and accompanied him as he introduced them to those in his party. Most were ministers of Falasmir's government or lords of Umbar. But one caught Mithadan's attention. The only woman present, she was introduced as the ruler of a desert people. This would have interested Mithadan, save for her demeanor. She was dark skinned and short, but her dark eyes seemed to sparkle with contempt, as if he were utterly unworthy of her notice.

Having weathered the receiving line, Mithadan and Airefalas turned away and began to mingle again. Airefalas was corraled immediately by a squat trader in coffee, but Mithadan evaded his attention and made his way back towards the door where servants carried trays of wineglasses. He snared a goblet of fragrant red wine and turned away only to collide with a young lady who was hurrying through the crowd.

"Excuse me," he cried as he conducted an impromptu balancing act with the goblet whose contents sloshed alarmingly before settling.

"I'm sorry," she responded with averted eyes. She attempted to step around him and make her way to the entrance, but at that moment a troupe of jugglers entered and began performing before the door. She quickly stepped back into the crowd and stood by a tall potted plant. Mithadan, at risk of being drawn into the midst of the performers, backed away as well.

"It seems that we are going nowhere right now," he said with a slight grin.

"I was going to get some air," she replied curtly. "I'll try the terrace." She made her way towards the wall and turned towards a broad arch. Mithadan looked up and found the wine dealer bearing down upon him. He hurriedly followed the woman out into the open air.

A cool breeze cut through the receding heat of the day, bringing a touch of the sea tang with it. Mithadan breathed deeply, then spoke to the woman, who was now leaning lightly against a stout marble pillar. "I hope you don't mind if I join you," he said. "It was getting a bit stuffy in there. I am Mithadan of Gondor."

"I'm Rama," she replied shortly.

"Are you the daughter of one of the traders?" he asked.

Her eyes flashed. "I am a trader," she replied with annoyance.

"I'm sorry," he answered. "All the others are men, so I thought... Well, I'm sorry. What do you trade in?"

"Horses," Her eyes met his in challenge as if daring him to make further comment.

"Well," he laughed. "I love horses, but that is one thing I'm not interested in buying right now. My ship is too small. It would be cruel to transport horses over sea in cramped quarters. I have too much respect for the animals. My wife and I have five horses. Actually, three and two ponies for the children."

Rama blinked in surprise. This was not the response she had expected. In a few minutes, they were chatting animatedly about training and care of their animals and Rama was extolling the virtues of her desert-bred steeds.

"You are from the desert?" he asked. She nodded. "My people roam the lands, usually on the fringes of the desert, though sometimes we traverse the sands for weeks at a time."

"I am looking for a friend," he said carefully. "She has been missing for some time, but she was in Harad when we last heard from her. She was searching for her family. We miss her greatly and would appreciate any news of her that we could find. Her name is Bird. She is olive-skinned and slight, with dark hair that bears a white streak."

"I've not heard of her," replied Rama. "I'm sorry."

"Then perhaps you have heard of her people," he continued. "They... have a skill... a mastery of...shapes."

Rama frowned and her eyes narrowed. She took a step away from Mithadan. "They do not exist," she hissed. "They are the tales of liars."

Mithadan was taken aback by Rama's reaction, but forged on nonetheless. "They are real," he answered. "I've seen her use her talent. Maybe you would know her by her name in her people's tongue. She is known as Te' sorthene Dester' edra."
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Old 01-20-2004, 04:01 PM   #67
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Rama

At first Ráma said nothing. Stunned by the words she was hearing, the desert woman shook her head and glanced away, trying to mask her confusion. Her people jealously guarded their secret tongue and would not casually share such words. Even more to the point, no master of shapes would willingly give out a true name to anyone beyond their immediate clan, certainly not to an unknown outsider.

She refrained from peppering Mithadan with hasty questions, holding her tongue and quickly sorting through the possibilities. Perhaps this was some new ploy Wyrma had devised. Yet Ráma did not think so. To maintain her disguise within the palace, even the Wyrm depended on the traditional veil of secrecy, a secrecy not merely of shapes and forms, but even of the words and names that were sacred to their people.

Once, her mother had spoken of a distant age when evil men from outside routinely kidnapped children and forced the maenwaith to divulge secrets, under the lying pretext that the little ones would be set free. But that explanation also seemed unlikely. Long ago, her own people had decided it was better for innocent children to die at the hands of their own families rather than being forced to do a stranger's bidding their entire life. More importantly, Ráma could not believe such a heinous thing of Mithadan. The man had been so clearly proud when speaking of his own daughters and son. He did not act like someone who might torture little ones merely to gain some practical advantage.

As unlikely as it seemed, perhaps this stranger was telling the truth. She knew of no one who went by the name 'Dester' edra, sister-of-the-wind. But, for parents to choose such a name, they must have been certain that their child would master one of the great flying shapes. The wind-sister might even be an Eagle. And Te sorthene ......the northerner might not understand the true meaning of these words: that it was he who was seen as the "friend of the heart" to his maenwaith sister.

Like a bird winging through the skies, Ráma heard Mithadan speak, as if from a great distrance.... Ráma, are you alright?

She quickly reined in her thoughts and replied, "Yes...yes... I was just thinking about your words. I can not help you." Then she hastily shifted to another topic, since this was not the place to be discussing secret things.

After several moments of harmless conversation about how unseasonably warm the weather had been, Ráma noticed Wyrma walking in their direction. Her voice halted in mid-sentence and she abruptly interjected, "I must go now." She extended her hand, gripping Mithadan's tightly in her own and dropping her voice to a whisper. "Umbar is a dangerous place. Do not trust Falasmir or the woman who walks beside him. Keep your eyes open at all times. I will soon return home, but you may always leave a message for me at the Cat's Paw. I have friends there... And, you? Where do you stay?" Ráma's eyes strayed nervously towards Wyrma but she stood her ground to listen to Mithadan's response.

"I hope to be back on the Star soon and sailing home. But for now, my mate and I have been given chambers at the palace and guards who guide us wherever we go."

She leaned over further and again lowered her voice, "Take my advice. Learn how to lose your guards. Your safety may depend on it." Then she straightened up and, briefly inclining her head, walked quickly towards the doorway.

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Old 01-21-2004, 12:56 AM   #68
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Aiwendil:

As they made their way around the great port, Aiwendil stood near the rail, watching the distant lights of Umbar fade away. The istar paid little attention to the exchange of goods or the friendly bartering that was soon being played out on the deck of the vessel. Yet once the captain gave the signal to be off, he'd quickly come aboard the small skiff and put his hand to the heavy oar with a degree of enthusiasm and anticipation that far exceeded his usual manner.

For some unknown reason, he felt more alert and awake than he'd done for some time. Aiwendil pushed his shoulder into the task, and felt his muscles ache in response -- a good, healthy twinge that reminded him he was actually doing something productive.

The moon's pale glow spilled over onto the coast and afforded just enough illumination that the wizard could make out the shoreline and the landscape that lay beyond it. To his right, hugging the water's edge, he could see the shadowy outline of a far range of mountains that curved inland and disappeared somewhere to the south. Straight ahead and further north, he observed no signs of habitation, only the endless blowing sands, barely discernible in the dim grey shadows.

Outwardly, this dry piece of earth looked nothing like the gardens he'd tended back home: all brown, and parched, and stretched, with no greeness about it. Yet somehow those endless sands reminded Aiwendil of the place from which he'd come in a way that he'd almost forgotten. They were more beautiful and wild than anything he'd seen in Middle-earth, even the rugged forests near the Anduin. The tawny hills rolled on forever almost like the Sea, carrying along a quiet hint of the endless ages that had already passed and those that were still to come.

Aiwendil laughed at his own reflections. Strange that he should be thinking of Valinor; such things had not crossed his mind for longer than he could remember. With a final heave on the oars, the small boat came running into the tiny natural harbor, nestling down beside its larger neighbors. The istar stretched out his legs and tried to stand up, still wobbling a bit from the transition to dry land. He caught hold of Rôg's arm and steadied himself, stepping out onto the sandy shore.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 9:33 AM January 22, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 01-21-2004, 11:37 AM   #69
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Rôg

The prow scraped along the sandy bottom as the boat rushed through the shallow waters leading to the strand. Rôg had rolled his breeches above his knees and shoved his boots into his leather pack before they cast off from the Gull. The surging water swirled about his lower legs, stinging them with its salty coldness as soon as he’d jumped from the boat. Pushing against it as it rushed back from the shore, his arms strained to pull the boat further onto the beach as his feet struggled to find purchase on the shifting sand beneath them. Qasim and Umar, their own ketch secured from the waves, ran out to help. And soon the boat was brought firmly onto land, and Aiwendil and Mas’ud assisted out.

Others, waiting on shore, had already loaded the birds and other goods onto the waiting wagons. And others still had a small fire going and there were kettles of hot, strong tea sweetened with honey to refresh the merchants’ spirits and hold off sleep. They would not be spending the night here, intending to set off once all the wagons had been loaded, and then to head northeast toward the city and its bazaar.

Rôg had no need of the tea, though he took a cup as it was passed to him, inclining his head graciously to the one who had set it in his hands. Still barefoot, he sat on a rock watching the shadows of the merchants as they moved about their wagons seeing to the cargo. They had declined his help, the firelight glinting off their white teeth as they smiled at his offer, saying thank you, but we are almost done, and you are our guests.

His toes dug luxuriously into the warm sands as his gaze took in the shadows of the mountains against the night sky, and he wondered for a brief moment what creatures there were who lived above the desert floor in the craggy places of the distant ridge. Perhaps the old man and he would find time to go there as they traveled south.

Rôg’s woolgathering was cut short as Qasim called them to his wagon. They would ride with him – Aiwendil on the seat in front with Qasim and Rôg in the back, his legs left dangling from the rear of the wagon bed. Their wagon was last in line, and the horses stamped their hooves against the packed sand eager to be off. Rôg could hear Qasim urging them on with a flick of the reins and a few soft words. The iron bound wheels crunched against the sand as they started, and the small lantern which hung from wagon bed threw crazy, swinging patterns of light on the passing sandy hillocks as they rolled by.

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Old 01-21-2004, 03:22 PM   #70
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Sting

As Lord Falasmir and his attendants moved down the reception line toward them, Airefalas stepped into place beside Mithadan, his gray-green eyes studying the face of the approaching Umbarian lord. Ordinarily people didn't carry duplicity upon their faces like a moustache or a beard, especially not those who were well-versed in deception, but as Lord Falasmir moved nearer, Airefalas found himself studying the man's face for just that...some hint of his true disposition. So far, aside from the threatening position of the two warships in the harbor and the palace's ever-present guards, Airefalas had seen nothing to support his strong feelings of discomfiture and foreboding. Glancing at Mithadan's cool confidence beside him, Airefalas began to doubt his own instincts.

Then, his eyes fell again on the woman who walked beside Lord Falasmir. Something about her eyes and the stern set of her jaw set all of his nerves on edge. This was a dangerous woman. But whether or not she proved dangerous to him and Mithadan remained to be seen. As far as Airefalas was concerned, he would just as soon stay out of her way. Bowing respectfully to her and Lord Falasmir as they reached him, he felt distinctly grateful once they had passed. Meeting them had done nothing to set him at ease. The sense of foreboding still raged in his heart, despite his doubts.

Turning away from the reception line once they had passed, Airefalas had every intention of returning to Korpulfr and his silks. Unfortunately, he was immediately taken in hand by a rather officious coffee merchant, who grabbed him tightly around the elbow and practically dragged him over to look at his selection of coffees. Casting a sardonic glance over his shoulder in the direction of his captain, Airefalas saw Mithadan in close conversation with the only other female in attendance aside from Lord Falasmir's companion. If ever, thought Airefalas, there was a difference between two women, this was it. It was like comparing a rose to a block of granite. He found it interesting that the only two women present should represent such a contrast to one another.

He had noticed the younger woman when she had entered the courtyard some minutes earlier, his eye having been caught by her unique beauty, but had instantly lost track of her. He had been at the height of his negotiations with Korpulfr over the saffron when she came in and had felt compelled to keep his focus on his business where it belonged. Now, listening patiently to the sales pitch of the coffee merchant, he found himself wondering what she and Mithadan had to discuss. She did not seem to have any wares to peddle like the rest of the vultures in attendance. In fact, she seemed somewhat troubled, almost angry, which stood out in sharp contrast to the annoyingly unctious demeanor of so many of the other merchants. She had the appearance of a desert dweller, too, which was also unusual for the evening. He decided to ask Mithadan about her later.

Airefalas startled and drew back sharply as the swarthy face of the coffee merchant suddenly filled his field of vision. Sensing that the Gondorian was not paying attention, the merchant had taken it upon himself to insert his face between Airefalas and whatever it was that did interest him. He held up a handful of coffee beans, which he thrust under Airefalas' nose.

"Smell the rich aroma, sir!"

Not having much choice to the contrary, Airefalas did as the merchant suggested.
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Old 01-21-2004, 04:48 PM   #71
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Sting

Mogru could not sleep. Over the past few nights he had been troubled by bad dreams that left no memory other than a vague sense of dread that would often keep him from rest until dawn; and now another of these had driven him back to wakefulness. It was as dark as pitch in his room and so still that he could hear the sounds of the house, which creaked as it settled itself. 'Even the house is sleeping,' he mused, and for a moment he was irrationally afraid that he would wake the ancient building, as though it were an old man who would berate him peevishly for disturbing his rest.

The house belonged to Mogru's father, who had built it when he first found wealth on the seas. Mogru had wondered how a man might find gold among the waves, for surely it would sink to the bottom. Certainly his brooch had done so when it fell into the river as he played, and his father had been angry at the loss. His father was often angry, and Mogru knew better than to trouble him when a ship was overdue or when he had been drinking with the other merchants. When he was old enough, he had been promised, he would sit and take wine with the men, for his father had said that this was how business was done. Mogru was not so certain that he would like business, for his father was often unhappy or angry when he had been talking of it; but he had been told that he would be a merchant when he was grown. He did not argue with his father when he said such things, although he hoped that business would not involve Nazam. His father was always angry when he had seen his fellow merchant; Mogru did not like him and he smiled like a snake.

Mogru tried again to sleep, but half-remembered images from his dream returned when he closed his eyes and it would not come. He was becoming thirsty now, and he took up the ewer that stood on the table by his bed. It was empty again: the servants often forgot this task and he was loth to trouble his father with it when he was so busy. At this time of year, several ships would be at sea at once, and he was often at the docks when he was not at the guild-hall in the town. When Mogru had last told him of the empty jug his father had been angry again and he had received a buffet for his pains.

Even so, Mogru's thirst was becoming insistent. Although the servants were asleep he knew where to find the well, and he was sure that he remembered how he had seen water drawn from it. Father often spoke of the foolishness of their servants, so he was sure that it could not be difficult to do this. His father was not awake to berate him for doing their work, and the bucket could not be heavy for the maidservants could lift it with ease. He had not felt its weight himself.

Moving as quietly as he could, Mogru left his room and made his way towards the main staircase. A little pale light entered from the lamps on the gate outside and he could see enough to make out where he stood. To reach the stairs, he knew that he must pass his father's room; and he must be careful not to wake the merchant: he would be sure to be beaten if he were to be caught 'sneaking about the place' at this hour. Each movement he made seemed weirdly loud, as though the house itself were trying to bring down punishment on him, and he saw now that the door of his father's room was ajar. If the merchant was awake he would have to be especially careful if he was to escape his wrath.

As he drew level with the door, Mogru suddenly caught a flash of movement within, as though some heavier shadow had moved within the darkness. Mogru froze, not knowing what he should do. If his father was not asleep then some trouble was keeping him so, and this could be dangerous. For a moment he thought of returning to his room, but he was as likely to be caught returning as he was leaving: if he was to be punished, he would like to have his drink as well.

As he stood shivering in the cold darkness, there came a movement from inside his father's room. Suddenly, silently the door swung open and a man walked through, taking as much care as had Mogru himself. The man seemed huge, but Mogru could tell that he was not as tall as his father; he was dressed all in black and wore his black headscarf across his face so that only his eyes showed. Mogru did not like those eyes: they were gentle, even kindly; but they were also vacant, suggesting that nothing lay behind them save the same darkness that was woven into the man's clothes. Frightened as he was of his father, Mogru knew that he must cry out: this man should not be here, and surely something was very wrong. He opened his mouth to shout.

The man's arm moved. At first Mogru thought that he was striking him, but the hand passed just in front of his face. He felt something brush across his neck and then strangely his chest began to feel warm and his throat filled with choking liquid. Suddenly he felt very tired, and although he knew it was ignoble to sleep on the floor he could not seem to resist the desire. His legs gave way and he fell to the ground in a pool of something wet. He felt ashamed that his bladder was out of his control, and surely his father would punish him for something so unmanly. The light from outside grew dimmer, and then suddenly it grew dark. Mogru slept.

***

Hazad left the house silently by the same window through which he had entered. Concerned that the boy's fall might have been heard, he moved swiftly, but his motions were careful and smooth. It was as important to escape cleanly as it was to approach unseen, for there would be no gold for dead men. The retainer whose task it had been to guard this entrance lay in the shadow of a wall, where he would be unseen until later in the day. By then, Hazad hoped to be back in his room near the road and inside a clean suit of clothes. He knew that he would see darker stains on the satin he wore when he stepped into the light. Drawing a cloth from within his shirt, he wiped his knife clean and returned it to its sheath. The boy had been inconvenient, but there was no danger of discovery now: if the worst happened he could escape in the confusion. Swiftly he moved into the shadow of some out-houses and began to make his way back to the inn. He must be in bed before the servant came to wake him.

Hours later, warm in bed and with his bloodied clothes consigned to the bottom of a saddlebag, Hazad thought again about his client. Nazam was an impatient and venal man, and there might be some trouble in claiming his fee. This gave him no great cause for concern, since he would choose when he accepted payment himself, a condition to which all his clients must agree. Still, it might be wise to change his place of residence, and to arrange the meeting somewhere far from it. The docks were usually a good place to hide, and he could leave the horse in a stable nearer the centre of town. It was unlikely that Nazam had any servants with the skill to follow a professional, so he could probably afford to accept one more contract before leaving Umbar. Driving such concerns from his mind, Hazad lay back in the pre-dawn light and fell into a dreamless sleep.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 8:05 AM January 26, 2004: Message edited by: The Squatter of Amon Rûdh ]
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Old 01-22-2004, 06:59 AM   #72
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Silmaril

The atmosphere in the Great Hall of the palace was hardly different than that of a bazaar, and the cacophony of sounds and smells and sights was almost overpowering to Wyrma. Voices grew loud as they praised their wares and haggled over prices; samples of spicy wine, steaming coffee, juicy dates and figs were proffered; silks, wools, and linens were held out to be touched; the scent of spices was ever-present, a heady, pungent mixture; and a lively dance of colours and movements whirled about with an energy renewed by the cooler temperatures of the evening.

Wyrma found herself almost wishing that she could be outside under the bright stars of a desert night, feeling the exhilarating chill of the nocturnal air. She pushed those thoughts aside firmly, reminding herself that this was the price to be paid for city living, and concentrated instead on the faces of the people she passed.

Amidst the liveliness of temperamental southerners, the quiet stance of the two northern guests was conspicuously obvious. Wyrma looked at the captain and his companion with some curiosity, though her face remained impassive. Tall they stood before her, making her feel smaller than usual, despite the fact that she stood very upright, with chin lifted high. As she looked into the captain’s grey eyes, she recognized authority and a strong will beneath his calm demeanour. This was a man to be reckoned with, one who commanded respect even without a court of followers surrounding him. She felt a slight tug of regret; her people had no quarrel with the kingdom of Gondor, and this man would have been a valuable ally.

However, Gondor was far away, and Umbar was near; she must needs choose her connections to serve her own purposes. Interesting though it would be to find out more about the cities and lands of the north, she could not seek conversation with those whom Umbar considered foes. She fell back from Falasmir’s side briefly, motioning to her son. “Speak with the northern captain if you can, or with his first mate. Find out all you can about their cities and their people,” she whispered to him.

Happy to receive an assignment that coincided so well with his natural curiosity and gregariousness, Tinar pushed his way through the crowd. By the time he had reached the guests, the captain has disappeared, but his second-in-command was listening to the enthusiastic praise of a coffee tradesman. He waited politely until the man turned away with a look of seeking escape in his eyes. Tinar smiled his most infectious smile at him, and the northerner grinned back.

“Do you wish to buy coffee?” he asked, wondering who the youth might be. The richly ornamented clothing showed that he was obviously well-born, but he did not remember being introduced to him.

“No,” Tinar answered. “I am not a trader, but I am eager to speak to you and learn more about your home. Tell me, are there mountains there?”

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 12:15 PM January 22, 2004: Message edited by: Estelyn Telcontar ]
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Old 01-22-2004, 10:37 AM   #73
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Korpúlfr

Korpúlfr was just directing Airefalas towards the fine fabrics when the fanfare sounded announcing the arrival of Lord Falasmir and his attendants, the northerner excused himself and joined his captain, promising to return and negotiate a price before the night was out. Smiling warmly, he nodded and watched the two Gondorian's as Falasmir's procession made its way down the courtyard.

Korpúlfr had no love for Umbar's lord and made no effort to push himself forward like the other merchants, fighting to gain their lords attention and approval, he needed nor wanted either. But Falasmir and his entourage inevitably passed his way. He bowed respectfully both to Falasmir and Wyrma the leader of his people, showing no sign that her new position surprised him in the slightest, he had heard the rumours and having inconspicuously questioned Tinar he had gained the truth, though he was not entirely sure weather Wyrma's youngest son had known of his slip.

"Master Korpúlfr," the lord of Umbar addressed him accordingly, "the women of my court speak very highly of your fine wares, I pray that you have not yet sold all to our new guests," Falasmir commented running his hand along a soft red silk which was finely inlaid with gold thread.

"Not as yet my lord, but an interest has been shown." He replied pleasantly, but behind his pleasant facade he felt almost certain that the older man was toying with him in some way.

"Very good, I would never hear the end of it if I returned empty handed." Falasmir laughed, then clapping his hands a short, squat, balding man stepped forward.

"This is Tahrim, he will see to my needs," then with a dismissive hand he continued down the line of waiting merchants.

Korpúlfr's dark eyes almost narrowed with the malice and contempt he felt at the lords insult, but a sharp look from his leader, reminded him of the importance of the facade they maintained. Putting on a well practised smile he turned to Falasmir's negotiator "Now to business!" he laughed heartily. But his smile did not remain long, Tahrim took but only three bolts in the end, but three of the best and at a price that was more insulting than the lords impromptu dismissal.

As he watched the old man ordered servants to take the bolts away, he lifted another glass of the rich red wine with which to quell his burning anger. "Lord Falasmir wishes to impress his guests, with what his Merchants have to offer, you would be advised not to disappoint!" the old man warned with a sly grin, Korpulfr almost choked on his drink, but managed to supress his anger and nod his understanding, but as the old man turned away a grin pressed his lips, His merchant! if only he knew the truth! he thought with renewed satisfaction.

Looking around the courtyard his thoughts again turned to the sea captain and his interest in their people, The Northerner Airefalas had seemed cautious, but pleasant enough, even his captain seemed to have a non threatening air about him, But Korpulfr knew only too well how much outward appearances could be deceiving and the northerners interest in his people concerned him deeply. The type of men who generally sought their kind where never to be trusted, greedy manipulative people thinking to use their peoples skills to their advantage.

Suddenly his last memories of his mother flashed into his mind. It was mid afternoon when they came, the young men of the tribe where out hunting, leaving only the women, children and elderly tending the day to day chores in their camp. a mild breeze whipped among the tents when suddenly the ground rumbled, Korpulfr was with his cousins drawing pictures in the sand with a dried twigs, when a large cloud of whipped up sand approached fast from the west, there was screams and he was snatched up by his mother fear gripped him this was not the first time the large dark men had come, burying his head in his mothers shoulder he began to cry.

"hush little one, everything will be fine" his mother whispered trying to comfort him as they ran, but the thunder of hooves still pursued them.

"To the forest!" someone yelled and his mother made for the cover of the dark trees, but once in the forest their pursuers divided them and he and his mother ended up separated from their tribe, his mother exhausted faltered and stumbled, he could hear men's voices close behind them. His mother looked at him, her large, round eyes filled with fear and sadness, her hand strayed to her belt where a small knife lay, but with a tear she stayed her hand and put him high into the branches of a large tree.

"Hush now little one!" she said kissing his forehead, "You must not move or even make a sound, no matter what you hear, do you understand!" she said sternly. he nodded slowly as she smiled and ran her soft hand down his cheek moving aside a stray lock of raven hair.

"I will always love you my little Raven" she whispered, turning away from him as the dark men broke through the trees to circle her. Filled with fear Korpúlfr clung to the tree and closed his eyes. As a loud howl rang out he opened his eyes and cautiously looked between the dark leaves. Below he could see the form of a large brown and cinnamon wolf, its lips pulled back threateningly revealing sharp dangerous looking teeth, Suddenly the wolf leapt towards the nearest Haradwaith warrior, Korpúlfr heard a whistle sound and closed his eyes as an arrow pierced the wolves side, when he opened his eyes the wolf was gone but to his horror his mother lay still on the ground Surrounded by the dark skinned warriors.

"Our lord will be most pleased!" one of the men laughed pulling a dark arrow from his mothers side. Throwing his hand to his mouth to suppress the sick feeling in his stomach he turned away. The dark men took his mothers body upon one of their horses and rode back from whenced they had come.

Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth he pushed the memory aside, only evil wicked men looked for our people!he thought bitterly narrowing his eyes in the direction of the sea captain, it was then that he noticed the man's new companion a short yet attractive young woman, it was unusual to see women traders in the city, but he had dealt with a few desert trader that were women, but this one he did not know. pretending to be examining the other merchants wares he made his way slowly towards the sea captain and the desert woman.

He had just got close when the young woman walked quickly from the terrace towards the door bumping his shoulder in her haste, she turned and hastily apologised, their eyes lock momentarily, before she again moved towards the door. Something about the young woman's warm gold flecked, brown eyes seemed familiar, but he had never seen her before of that he was quite certain.

With a bemused shake of his head he turned back to the terrace but seeing one of Falasmir's more loyal Merchants now heading toward the captain he moved in the opposite direction, wondering what the desert woman and the northerner had discussed. Perhaps he would seek out Tinar and see what the young son of their leader made of the captains sudden interest in skinchangers and desert people. But just now he had business to conduct. Seeing the stout Umbarian wine Merchant he headed in his direction and began plying his trade, even negotiating prices for the mans fine wines and spirits, making sure that he positioned himself were he could keep a close but guarded eye on the Foreigners, If they were hunting for his people he would make sure they found one! one that would most definitely fight back making sure they troubled his people no more.

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Old 01-22-2004, 12:24 PM   #74
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Sting

Gondor

Dinner was done. The last of the dishes cleared away by Pio, with the aid of Gilwen and Cami, soon found themselves scraped clean and soaking in a tub of hot soapy water. ‘Wash or dry?’ asked Pio of the two remaining diners, holding out the sponge in one hand, a towel in the other. Isilmir looked up at Baran, offering him first pick.

‘The towel, I think.’

‘Good choice,’ returned Isilmir, pushing a tall footstool toward the sink. He was followed close on by Cami with a chair from the kitchen table. She was not all that proficient at cleaning plates, but was quite good at squishing the suds through her fingers, a pastime her brother did not mind indulging.

Pio lit the lamp on the kitchen table and pulled it close to where she sat. The scroll that Baran had brought was laid flat on the table in front of her, and her finger followed the lines of script as she re-read them. A dragon in the southlands. Real or Skinchanger, she wondered. As far as she could recall, Bird knew nothing of this . . .

The sound of laughter drew her eyes up from the puddled light on the vellum. Isilmir and Cami were playing a guessing game as they washed the dishes.

‘I’m thinking of something in this room . . .’ Isilmir had declared, a look of bland innocence on his face. ‘Is it animal?’ asked Cami. Isilmir smiled and shook his head ‘no’. ‘Vegetables?’ she asked, her face hopeful as she eyed the bowl of apples nearby on the counter. ‘No,’ returned her brother laughing. ‘And the category is “vegetable” – like plants.’ Cami furrowed her brow in thought, and made a few wild guesses.

Gilwen had come in by now, the few table scraps and crusts of bread left over from dinner devoured by the ravenous flock of chickens in the back yard pen. ‘Mineral, then,’ she piped in, looking smugly at the both of them. ‘And I’m guessing the spoon you’re holding in your hand.’ ‘No and no’, came his swift retort. An argument ensued, with Gilwen declaring he was unfair as he was thinking of nothing. ‘You’re just trying to fool us!’

A low, rumbling chuckle pulled their attention toward Baran. ‘She’s right,’ he said to the boy. ‘Isn’t she? . . . in a way at least . . .’

Cami and Gilwen looked hard at their brother, who stood squirming under their scrutiny; and then looked back expectantly to Baran. ‘Well . . .?’ asked Gilwen, prompting him.

Baran chuckled again, a deep sound that seemed to echo somewhere in the great cave of him. ‘Clever cub!’ he said, winking at Isilmir. He grasped his towel and fanned them briskly. ‘The towel!’ screeched Cami, clapping her hands at having guessed. Her face fell when he shook his head and patted her on the head. ‘Nay, little one . . . it’s “air”.’

Isilmir’s face split into a wide grin. Seeing the look on his twin’s face, he jumped down from the stepping stool and ran for the door. Cries of, ‘You cheated!’ followed him as did his two sisters.

Baran lowered himself onto one of the chairs at the table. It creaked a bit, but being of sturdy build, it held. Pio held the scroll up to him. ‘It is unclear, is it not – whether this dragon is maenwaith or simply a dragon of some sort which associates itself with these olive skinned men.’ She rubbed the back of her neck and frowned. ‘Of course, there is your tale of skinchangers becoming dragons – their leaders, that is.’ An incongruous picture of a silver and black dragon flew through her thoughts, a lopsided crown on her head. Chuffing frantically as her great wings flapped, the dragon could not escape her “followers” . . . Tucking the absurd image away for now, Pio’s attention snapped back to Baran. She’d watched him through dinner, as he interacted with the children and with her, and sensed nothing hidden away . . . perhaps he could be trusted, to a point.

‘Make yourself a mug of tea, if you wish . . . and one for me also, if you please.’ She waved her hand in the direction of the kettle and the small crock that held the tea leaves, as she stood up. ‘Over there is the tea pot, and the mugs, as you know, are in that cupboard. I will be back soon. I just want to find my letters from Bird, and maps I have.’ She shook her head slightly at him before she turned to go. ‘Though I am afraid you may be somewhat disappointed with what I have to offer you . . .

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Old 01-23-2004, 12:01 PM   #75
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Sting

Surinen

Their work done and the well finished, Narayad and Surinen relaxed in the shelter of the small tent. It was the only manmade shape, along with the well, that could be faintly seen under that portion of the night sky, two black anomalies in a black and deserted landscape that lay quite far from the Eagle Clan's present encampment. And the outriders’ voices sounded small, lost in the vast expanse around them. Only the scrub betrayed that another form of life might exist in the dim light, under the watch of numerous stars.


It was a well-practiced habit of Ayar to send her outriders ahead, checking on the situation of the next camp, and along their route. It had been on one of these expeditions that the collapsed well had been discovered, long before their full numbers descended on this fragile place. And a fortunate practice it had proved on more than one occasion.


And while there where other places to find water, all sources must be kept in working order to sustain them as they passed though, moving in search of the subsistence for themselves and their animals. Even a well that produced a little helped to support some few of them. And there was no knowing, at anytime they might be scattered and forced to depend on these lesser-known and less dependable supplies. And so the wait began. It might take a single night; it might take several for the water to slowly find its way into their newly dug work. All they could do was wait so that they might know what to expect of it in the future.


Narayad was anxious, as he usually was during this interval. He had a keen sense for finding water, but Surinen knew his friend would not be at ease until the water was seen to be rising up the sides. He had witness the transformation several times over the years, as the water either arrived early or late, but always arrived, and his friend’s spirits rose with it.


Surinen, on the other hand, was weary as Narayad rattled on, and taking a deep breath he tried to stay awake. It would be a long night, he thought to himself as he tried to focus on what Narayad was speaking of and realized he had no idea what it might be. His thoughts had wandered once again.
Something about his sister? He was asking a question. What had he asked?


“Mirya? She is well from what my father mentioned. But I know little more than that,” he said devoid of emotion, not wishing to give Narayad the satisfaction of seeing him ruffled. It was an untidy spot in his life, this conflict between siblings, and one that didn’t show much hope of a resolution. His friend knew that. Why did he have to brooch the subject with him and not with the gossips, for wouldn’t they talk of it more readily?


Narayad began speaking again, but Surinen was far away remembering the day he had chased his sister away, a flitting lark high above the desert. Suddenly he saw a Raven flying also, chased by songbirds. It landed on the side of the new well in the afternoon sun. Surinen went to draw water for the birds, but the raven had fallen into the well, and only the songbirds remained sitting on the rim. Peering inside, there was nothing there, no bird could be seen and no water also, but looking up an eagle glided high in the air above. How strange for Narayad to have dug a dry well, he thought amidst his dreaming. “Only a little water is there,” he heard Narayad’s voice announce softly. “Soon,” he replied. “It will arrive soon.”
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Old 01-23-2004, 03:28 PM   #76
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Sting

The coffee merchant was beginning to wear on Airefalas' patience. For one thing he stood too close to Airefalas for the northerner's comfort, placing his face within inches of Airefalas' nose when he spoke. For another thing, his breath stank. To top things off, his merchandise was of questionable quality, while being offered - very stubbornly - at an extremely inflated price. Feeling a touch nauseated from the man's rancid breath, Airefalas tried for about the tenth time to break away, but found himself blocked yet again. Clinching the muscles in his jaw, he was just about to reach out and physically put the man out of his way when he noticed a very richly dressed Umbarian youth watching him. When he saw that Airefalas had noticed him, the young man smiled infectiously. Hoping to unload the obnoxious coffee merchant on to him, Airefalas grinned back.

"Do you wish to buy coffee?" he asked, trying hard to keep the irritation out of his voice. He almost added, please, but in the end just raised his eyebrows hopefully.

"No," answered the youth. "I am not a trader, but I am eager to speak to you and learn more about your home. Tell me, are there mountains there?"

"Yes!" answered Airefalas with a little more enthusiasm than the question warranted. He edged quickly around the coffee merchant, who had dropped back a step out of deference to the newcomer. Gesturing with a nod for the obviously well-born young man to accompany him, Airefalas moved swiftly out of the range of the coffee merchant. When he thought he had reached a safe enough distance, he snagged a glass of red wine from a passing servant's tray and turned his attention back to the boy. He let out a deep breath.

"Yes, Gondor is quite mountainous in the north and the area around Minas Tirith, where I come from," he answered. "In fact, the White City itself is cut out of the side of a mountain. Why do you ask? Do you come from the mountains?"

"I am fond of mountains," answered the young man rather evasively. "And Minas Tirith," he continued. "Is it a great city? As great as Umbar?"

"Every bit as great as Umbar," answered Airefalas. "Greater, if you will pardon a man's affection for his homeland." He smiled at the young Umbarian and watched as he mulled the last bit over. Airefalas went on: "Minas Tirith hasn't the heat or dust of Umbar. On a clear morning, the spires of the citadel sparkle."

"I should like to see that someday," said the youth. "I am named Tinar, by the way. And you are...?"

"Airefalas, First Mate of the Lonely Star." He gestured vaguely in the direction in which he had last seen Mithadan. "My captain, Mithadan, is here somewhere."

"Yes, I saw him," answered Tinar. "I should like to meet him, too, before the evening is up. But for the moment -" he bowed politely "- I am pleased to meet you."

Bowing in his turn, Airefalas grinned. "Not nearly so pleased as I am to meet you. I shall be forever in your debt for your timely appearance at that pestilential coffeeman's booth. If he comes at me again, I think I shall be obliged to kill him." Seeing Tinar's shocked expression, Airefalas winked at him. "Either that or kill myself. One of the two. I don't think I could bear another session with him."

Seeing the joke, Tinar laughed. "Yes, he was a bit rank. Now, what you were saying about the citadel..."

From there the conversation returned to the topic of Gondor and Minas Tirith. Airefalas found the boy curious and very bright, asking all sorts of questions, some of which had never even occurred to him. He felt a bit uncomfortable talking so much about his homeland to someone who had been until recently - and possibly could still be - considered the enemy. With that in mind, he made certain to reveal nothing that wasn't ancient history or couldn't be learned from the deck of a ship on the Anduin, deftly turning the topic whenever the young man's questions grew too probing. Even so, he enjoyed the conversation very much. Finally, when Tinar seemed to run out of questions for a moment, Airefalas decided to ask a few of his own.

"Tell me, Tinar," he said. "Are you a relation of Lord Falasmir? I seem to remember you coming in with his entourage, though I know we weren't introduced at the time."

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 7:17 PM January 23, 2004: Message edited by: Ealasaide ]
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Old 01-24-2004, 08:40 AM   #77
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Sting

Thorn

Exhausted from his sprint down hill, the desert rat was relieved to find that the journey’s end was at an inn bearing the sign of a crescent moon that lay close to the base of the hill, and not further. As he skirted the building looking for an inconspicuous place to enter – for it did not look the type of place to entertain rodents – he found himself wondering what move the Wyrm had in mind and how might it be frustrated. For the other clans must hear that they need not follow this one who had no regard for the traditions that had kept the people safe though he ages. And they must see that it was possible to resist her leadership, choosing instead the ancient ways of their kind.

The Eagle clan were not a tame people, nor would they ever be domesticated, no matter how tempting a prize might be set before them. Surely they would sicken and die if they were to be penned in a city such as Umbar, living side by side with the unfortunate ones who had not their gift, nor the understanding of it, but endlessly built and struggled to fill this small patch of ground, with the wealth that would some day crush them under its weight. And one cannot easily fly free, encumbered with such burdens.

Yes, the leader of eagles can see far ahead, he thought to himself, and her sight is clear…. Ah, and there at last, I see my way into this promising package! He scurried to where an open gutter ran along the street, and following a narrow trench leading from it, Thorn disappeared under the greenery planted beside the trench, entering the kitchen of the Crescent Moon through a drainage hole in its wall. The whole floor slanted gently toward the dark and damp corner room where he appeared among the dirty vessels waiting to be scrubbed. The floor was slippery as he made his way among the jumble of large clay pots of water lining the wall, searching for the right moment to make a dash for the doorway, and the common room.

But when he finally rounded the corner he saw that the common room stood nearly empty, and a worker was polishing the tiles. Turning away from it, he headed for the darkened hallway, and paused sitting up to sniff the air. She was here somewhere, he thought to himself, but how to find her? Just then an attendant approached, bearing a tray in one hand and a lamp in the other. Thorn quickly hid in the shadows as the man walked by and following him, he watched as he stopped at a stout wooden door and rapped on it lightly. The door opened from the inside, and the guest, one of the Haradrim, sent the attendant away, for he had not ordered food. Thorn could see in the dim light, the room was a sparse sitting room, and on one side of a long low table sat the plain woman he had followed to the inn.

When the hall was safely dark again, Thorn crept up to the doorframe and listened. The guests inside seemed to be discussing some point of business dispassionately in low voices, of which he could hear little of the man’s brief replies and queries. But he did hear the sound of the coins, as the purse containing them was placed on the table. After a long pause the man said, “Who is it that you speak of?”

And clearly as if he had himself been standing in the room, Thorn heard the woman respond, “Ayar. Ayar, leader of the a desert clan.”

Thorn sunk down as if his heart had melted within him. What trap were they constructing? He must learn of it, and go as soon as possible to warn Ayar, for something was being planned against her. And Narika, what would become of her?

Suddenly the scent of danger ran strong in the air, and the light of a lamp reflected on the wall at the end of the hall. He saw the attendant turn the corner, lamp still in hand and in the other a lean and hungry cat. Thorn ran immediately as the cat was quietly placed down on the floor and the lamplight shone in his direction. He must get out. At all costs he had to get out!
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Old 01-25-2004, 03:00 PM   #78
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Sting

Rog

Bump . . . thump . . . whump . . . an endless, wheelish litany . . .

‘So much for catching a few winks on the road,’ he muttered to himself.

Rog shifted uncomfortably on the back of the wagon. Despite the stack of folded grain sacks he’d wedged under himself as a cushion, the jolt of the uneven back wheel shot up his spine with a rhythmic regularity. And now his head was beginning to pound. Moth or bird, it made no difference, the ride pummeled him in any form. ‘What a homecoming this is proving to be,’ he groaned as the wheel thumped once more on the packed sand.

Jumping off the rear of the wagon bed brought some relief to his own back side, but now the drifting cloud of sand and dust stirred up by the retreating vehicle made his eyes sting and his nose run. ‘I give up,’ he muttered, sneezing into the folds of his sleeve. Pulling up his hood, he turned his back on the wagon.

He remembered the desert star patterns as soon as he looked up. Above him wheeled the great Drinking Gourd and round it, drawn to its promise of water, were the Bee, the Moth, the Rat, the Lizard. And there, lurking at the edges of the horizon the Eagle, the Warrior, and the Dragon. So bright they hung in the sable sky, unobscured by the sea of trees that flourished in the north or by clouds of those colder climes.

The smells came next as he stood there. Dry, sandy scents with the whispers of night-blooming plants clinging to them. The scent of olive trees from the north and date palms to the east, heavy with ripening fruit. Sharp tang of a desert rat as it scurried from burrow to burrow, marking its territory with its singular scent. And the faint promise of water, beckoning in the dry air.

Now the sounds washed in. The skitterings of tiny feet across the sand. The silken, undulating rustle of the snake in motion. Deep calls of those who hunted in the night and the short, sharp cries of their prey.

The swaying lamp on the wagon had become a small gleam by now. ‘They won’t miss me,’ he reasoned. ‘The old fellow is probably drowsing by now and Qasim will be nodding as he lets his team follow the wagon in front. I can be back before they know I’ve gone.’

His senses surrounded by the familiar, the changes seemed easier.

~*~*~*~

The small, brown bat flapped hurriedly eastward toward the foothills, rising up as high as it dared on its little wings; its large ears paying close attention to any possibility of problems in its path. Had anyone looked back from the departing wagons, they would only have noted the swooping flight of the little insectivore, apparently bent on seeking out his next meal.

~*~*~*~

Even at night, there were thermals that flowed up from the mountains’ side. Wings extended, the vulture caught them, letting them buoy him up as he moved swiftly through them. ‘Much better,’ murmured Rog, as his great wings pulled him along, carrying him to the other side of the hills. Clumsy aground, this form was a lovely one for flight. Built for long lazy circlings in the air, it was ideal for taking prolonged looks at whatever caught his eye.

~*~*~*~

It was a good-sized encampment that did catch his interest. Many tents. And pens, he noted, dropping nearer . . . large ones, filled with the strikingly beautiful horses of the desert . . . smaller ones holding in the flocks of goats, moonlight glinting here and there off their long silken hair. To one side were tethered the imperious ships of the desert, the camels. Wary of them, he gave them a wide berth as he dropped lower - his feathers had at one time been thoroughly drenched by a large gobbet of spit from one of the beasts with whom he'd had the misfortune to argue.

His now bat talons grasped for purchase on a pole of the larger tent near the center of the camp. It was cooler at night and people were awake, taking advantage of the respite from the heat. Around the fire pit, with its small crackling fire, were an assortment of men and women, with children leaning against them or snuggled close in laps, listening to a woman telling stories.

She had a lovely, deep voice. The cadence of her speaking drew him in, and he sidled clumsily across the surface of the tent toward a pole nearer her, his head turned toward her, straining to catch the features of her face. ‘Blind as a bat, indeed,’ he muttered, her profile a fleshy blur splotched by lighter hues of flame and moonlight.

Amidst the shadows of the tent he hoped he would not be noticed. The now small hawk bobbed his red splotched head round the pole, his clear eyes fixing on the storyteller as she moved her hands to emphasize a point. A strong, lovely face, its aquiline features thrown into relief by the flickering of the low flames. She laughed, a clear, ringing sound as the story ended, the voices of her listeners joining hers in chorus.

Rog, ever one to appreciate a good story, though he had not heard it all, let a thin, shrill whistle escape his beak. A dog, one of the many that lay comfortably near the ring of listeners, heaved itself up, lazily alert to the new sound. And one of the children clapped and pointed as the small hawk launched itself skyward in a noisome flurry of flapping feathers . . .

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Old 01-26-2004, 07:10 PM   #79
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Sting

Ráma

By the time Ráma arrived back at the Cat's Paw, the front door of the Inn had already been locked and barricaded for the night. Despite Falasmir's assurances to the citizenry that all was well in Umbar, the streets of the city were still full of danger. It was not unusual for the proprietor of a respectable establishment to bolt his doors at night and reopen them only in the morning.

Leading Kyelek towards the stables where a welcoming lantern still glowed in the window, Ráma placed him inside an empty stall and tipped the man in charge, a burly fellow with arms almost the size of barrels who agreed to keep an eye on the horse until her return. Tonight she planned to meet with Thorn, and ride out of Umbar early the next day, either with Thorn or by herself, returning to her mother and clan.

As she walked down the path that swung around to the back of the Inn, the events of the day continued to weigh heavily upon her mind: Wyrma's presence at the palace and the uneasiness she'd sensed among those attending the reception, a palpable fear that was carefully hidden behind masks of diplomacy and pretensions of trade. Nor did she know what to make of the captain from Gondor who claimed to be close with one of her maenwaith sisters. Mithadan had not said where or when he'd met his friend, but Ráma did not know any of her kin who would voluntarily journey to distant lands, certainly not to places in the far north.

Yet even beyond Wyrma's threat and Mithadan's puzzling words, there was something she found more personally painful. Try as she might, she could not erase the memory of her conversation with Thorn. Rama had known Thorn since she'd been a child; he had watched the twins grow up, almost like the big brother that the two girls had never had. If Ayar had her way, Thorn would become leader of the Eagles when the older woman chose to retreat to private life or journeyed beyond this world to join her ancestors. Sometimes Ráma wondered why Ayar had not brought either of her daughters before the council as possible leaders of the clan. Despite their youth, such future promises were not unheard of. At heart, though, Ráma trusted in her mother's judgement and would accept whatever she said. Still, the girl had reasoned that, at some point in the future, she would stand beside Thorn as his wife, and the two of them would jointly provide for their clan. She had pondered this enticing image so long that she had failed to notice how Thorn's eyes often strayed to her gentle twin Narika whose gift of story and song rivalled even that of Ayar's.

Now there could be no more pretending. Thorn had made his preference clear, probably speaking first to her mother, who had gently suggested he let Ráma hear the news directly from his mouth. Soon the young couple would have their wrists bound together in front of the clan and there would be a great celebration and feast in their honor. And when that happens, Ráma promised, I will be the first to offer the couple whatever support and protection I can give.

Leaving the stables and heading to the rear of the Inn, she pounded on the heavy wooden door, the entrance used during the day for wagons making deliveries to the kitchen. As she had hoped, the massive gate creeked back an inch or two and familiar eyes peered out through the crack. A large woman with tight black curls and skin as dark and rich as mahogony greeted her with a hug. There were few in Umbar whom Ráma trusted, even among her own folk. Too many of her kin had been seduced into giving up their freedom in exchange for empty promises. And, despite her conversation with Mithadan, Ráma had always made a point to avoid outsiders as much as possible.

With Lena, it was different. The woman had come from a tribe of free desertdwellers and had criss crossed the great sands many times, going further to the east and south than even her own clan had journeyed. When Lena's husband and children had been killed during the troubles of some thirteen years before, the woman had reluctantly agreed to settle within Umbar, purchasing the Cat's Paw and acting as its Innkeeper.

Lena was no Skinchanger but Ráma would trust her with her life. They had never spoken of it, but the older woman had once seen Thorn change from a sand rat into his human form. Lena had quietly accepted what had happened and made no fuss about it, keeping the secret to herself, for which Ráma was extremely grateful. Releasing the girl from her arms, Lena looked Ráma up and down, afterwards shaking her head in disapproval and prodding, "What has happened? You look as if you had swallowed a prickly cactus."

"Things are no better at the palace. In fact, worse! Falasmir has taken on a new advisor.....and she does not look to be any improvement over what was there before. And these traders from Gondor are too trusting. I fear they will end up with their throats cut in a ditch unless they are more careful."

Lena looked over at her friend and laughed, "Since when does a desert dweller care what happens to one of the strangers from over the sea?" The older woman continued in a teasing manner, " This one must have a face of extraordinary beauty for you to be so concerned."

"No, he is old," Rama responded without a trace of humor. "He has a wife and three babes of his own, and they please him well. But at least he appears to be a gentleman which is more than I can say of many others in that palace."

"Then I hope his fortunes fare better than you fear." Lena pushed her hand into the pocket of her skirt, and latched onto a small envelope, handing it over to the girl. "This came for you early this evening, after you'd already left. One of the messengers from the palace...."

Ráma thanked her and tucked it inside her belt, explaining that she would be leaving in the morning. She drew out her purse and offered to pay. "There is no charge," Lena quickly countered. "The horse you gave me your last visit will earn you a stay here whenever you need it." Then she looked hard at Ráma and lowered her voice, "I think there is something you are not telling me. But in this city, it is sometimes safer not to know. Please, be careful. And if you ever need help, I am here." With that, the two women parted, and Ráma withdrew to her chamber, unfolding Thorn's note on the table in front of her and reading:

My dear sister-to-be,

Something has come to my attention today which I feel impelled to share with you. For I fear that Falasmir's blind ambitions are about to destroy the fragile peace that exists in this city, and I do not wish to see you in the middle of it. To put it bluntly, Falasmir has stationed two Corsair warships next to the Lonely Star, a vessel from Gondor that stands berthed in our harbor. His intentions are to seize the ship within two days' time as well as all its men, selling the crew and its captain Mithadan into slavery.

While these strangers personally mean little to me, I pity them such a fate. More importantly, when you receive this letter, you must flee immediately for I do not know what further actions, if any, are planned. Do not speak of this thing to anyone, but ride out on your own as quickly as you can. Who knows what else Falasmir has in mind, especially with Wyrma now beside him? I pray that these troubles remain within the walls of this accursed city.

I will meet with you again late tonight. For now, I am off to do a bit of exploration in the palace.

Till later,

Thorn


Ráma flung down the letter on the table, her mind whirling in confusion. Without understanding or knowing what he was doing, Mithadan had approached her under one of the clan's most sacred obligations, that of offering friendship and shelter to those few who have been like a family member to one of the maenwaith. Yet Thorn had ordered her to flee on her own. How could she ignore either command? The girl sat hunched at the table, her head clutched in open hands, as she desperately tried to reason out what tradition demanded of her. She kept gazing out the window and down again at the floorboard hoping to see a small rat or bird made its way into her chamber. But an hour passed, and then two, and there was still no visit from her kinsman.

&lt;font size=1 color=339966&gt;[ 10:27 AM January 27, 2004: Message edited by: Mithadan ]&lt;/font&gt;

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 9:25 PM January 27, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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Old 01-28-2004, 01:27 AM   #80
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Aiwendil

His eyes half closed and drowsing, Aiwendil gazed sleepily at the panoply of stars parading across the darkened skies. A brown bat darted off into the night, spiralling upward, and then headed east towards the mountains of sand. One flash and a whir, a steady beating of wings, and Rôg had flown beyond even Aiwendil's sight and hearing.

A feeling of sadness, akin to envy, swiftly enveloped the wizard. The young man could take off whenever and wherever he pleased, while Aiwendil sat chained to the seat of a bumping wagon. Back on the ship, he had hoped things might be different here. But however he tried, he still could not penetrate the curtain that blocked off his inner sight. Behind that barrier lay the knowledge he needed to accomplish the goal that had been laid down for him.

That would be difficult, since the old man could not even remember why he had been sent. His knowledge of what had come before and many of his other skills had faded away during the long years he'd dwelled in Mirkwood. Yet his outer powers of observation--his eyesight and hearing--had not dimmed. Despite his befuddled appearance, very little escaped his attention. If anything, these faculties had sharpened. For he'd spent endless hours searching for small creatures and birds, seeking to capture their images and engrave them on his heart. They were a small blessing in a trying world. For even when bad fortune befell them, they did not complain or come begging for help. One moment they were here and the next gone, and others of their kind came to take their place.

With Man, it was different. Men had a great deal to say about why they felt they were here, and exactly what should be done to improve their plight. When he had first arrived, Aiwendil had been shocked to see such naked sorrow and want. So many people with so many needs, and each with a dozen different ideas about how to make things better. It was more than he could bear. He had gone off by himself and, without realizing it, began to adopt the same attitudes and behaviors as other Men: complaining about his situation and speculating on how the world might have been arranged differently for his own personal benefit.

In the midst of these reflections, the istar slipped over from a state of waking to that of sleep, his body slumped against the side of the wagon. He saw himself walking down a beautiful path in a garden that seemed hauntingly familiar. At the end of the path stood a figure of authority who hastened to his side, explaining why the istari were being sent, and what they were meant to do. It was as if time had rolled backwards and everything was being played over again.

Aiwendil glanced at Manwe and spoke what was in his heart, "I do not have the compassion of Olórin or the skills of Curunír. My power and wisdom are as nothing next to theirs. I am not suited for this task."

Manwe shook his head and responded sternly, "Aiwendil, I do not ask that you do this thing on your own. Only that you make some effort to help your elder brothers. For many years, you have been a gardener and a tender of beasts. Now, you must learn to teach others the things you have mastered, both in the mending of the earth and in helping them to discern the path of goodness. You are not to do these things yourself, but to teach those about you how to do them!"

Manwe fixed a sharp eye on the Maia, "Do not forget! No man who runs off by himself can teach. You must pay close attention to what others tell you. And until you fulfill these duties, you will not be permitted to return to Valinor." Then Manwe went on and spoke at length about the specific tasks appointed to Aiwendil. The old man strained his ears, but could not make out all the details. Yet a few words came floating up that seemed to make no sense. Something about 'wyrms' and 'eagles' and 'maenwaith' and that eventually Mordor would need a good gardener; there would be no need to rush his return, since the end of time was still very far away.

The rear wheel of the wagon momentarily slipped off the hard packed trail and sank into the softer sand piled up beside the path. Without warning, the wagon lurched to one side. It took a moment for the wheel to find solid ground again. In the meanwhile, Aiwendil was tossed roughly forward, hitting his head on the hooped canvas roof. He was instantly yanked back from the pleasant gardens of Lorien into Harad of the Fourth Age. The istar sat up and wistfully rubbed his eyes, wishing that he could will himself back again to hear more of what Manwe was saying. It was the first time in long years that he'd had a tiny peek through the shadowy curtain and caught a brief glimpse of what lay beyond. Regretting his abrupt awakening, Aiwendel looked about for Rôg and, realizing that he was still absent, grumbled a few sharp word beneath his breath.

<font size=1 color=339966>[ 5:03 PM January 28, 2004: Message edited by: Child of the 7th Age ]
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