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Old 04-12-2004, 11:47 AM   #161
Estelyn Telcontar
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Estelyn Telcontar is battling Black Riders on Weathertop.Estelyn Telcontar is battling Black Riders on Weathertop.
Tinar was thankful for the darkness that hid his burning cheeks. In his eagerness to hear more about the unknown Shapechanger, he had almost given his people away! He would have to be more cautious with these strangers; despite their friendliness, they could be enemies. His boyish trust was unworthy of Wyrma’s son. What could the Northerners be planning? It would be good if someone were to follow them and observe where they went, he thought, and a resolve began to form in his mind.

He accompanied Korpúlfr to see the guests off and drew him off to the side as soon as the door closed, speaking in low tones. “Did you hear that? They want to go to the markets. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for one of us to follow them and see what they do?”

Kor hesitated. “Yes,” he responded thoughtfully, “I had considered that as well, but as the head of this house, I cannot leave my guests unnoticed.”

“I agree,” Tinar answered. “But I can go – not many know me, and they would only think that I have gone back to the palace.”

“You?” Korpúlfr exclaimed, checking his voice and looking around to be sure they had not been overheard. “But your mother would never permit you to roam the streets of the city alone, and that at night! You do not know how dangerous it can be, and she would never forgive me if I allowed you to come to harm.”

“Well then, you will not know about it; I shall simply say ‘good night’ to you now and leave. I can take care of myself better than you think, and certainly much better than my mother or brothers expect.” With those words, he bowed in mock deference and quickly moved out of the door before Kor could intervene. He disappeared into the shadows and a moment later, a mangy mongrel of a dog emerged. Sniffing, he followed the scent of the Gondorians and their guards.

When they reached the markets, the dog had to be mindful of the many feet which could easily have trampled on him, and dodged numerous legs to keep up with the men he followed. The scent of alcohol which wafted from the guards had been overpowering at first, but now it was difficult to discern amongst the many scents of sweaty, perfumed, or drunken bodies, and the heady odour of cooking food and hot drinks mingled with it. He nearly lost the trail when they entered a crowded food tent, since he could not risk going inside, but luck had it that he went around it at the right instant to spot the sudden movement when they escaped their guards. As they zigzagged between tents and stands, veering through alleys and lanes, he realized that they were heading in the direction of the harbour. A feeling of exhilaration flooded over him – his instinct had been right! They had planned an escape!

Tinar did not stop to think what would happen next; all of his thoughts and strength were concentrated on following the two men in the darkness through streets that were unknown to him.

Last edited by Estelyn Telcontar; 04-13-2004 at 02:10 PM.
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Old 04-12-2004, 12:14 PM   #162
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Gondor – night of the King’s Party; present time

Ignoring the stares that greeted her entrance into the Common Room of the Seventh Star, Pio strode to the bar where Mírënin stood waiting for Morien to fill her orders of ale and spiced wine. Murmurings of approval rose and fell behind her. Though one old voice, Halfred, a regular at the Inn, spoke up more loudly declaring that it was just Mistress Piosenniel all gussied up for the King’s party. ‘Owns that merchant ship, The Lonely Star. Sails on her too, with her husband, Captain Mithadan. Got three lively little ones she brings in for a visit now and then.’ A tablemate of the old fellow, a little bleary eyed from his second pint, looked the Elf up and down as she passed by. ‘Looks like one of them El . . . dar,’ he said, drawing the word out in a slurred manner. His eyes were bedazzled by the numerous tiny gems the seamstress and her assistants had managed to sew onto Elf’s party dress. ‘Reminds me of stories of that witchy Elf that lived up north in that golden wood. All sort of shiny and all.’

Halfred kicked his companion soundly in the shins. ‘Best shut your trap on that particular one,’ he warned his companion. ‘The Queen’s own grandma she was . . . or is.’ His voice trailed off, unsure of how to refer to someone who’d sailed West.

Mírënin giggled at the comments on the Elf. Pio sighed, drawing her cloak about her, and raised her eyebrows at the young woman. ‘Well, you do look rather . . . glittery . . . tonight,’ said Morien in the girl’s defense. He leaned over the bar to get a look at Pio’s feet. ‘Shoes, even! And not your old boots.’ He leaned conspiratorially toward Mírënin. ‘Though I’ll bet a free round on the house that the Elf’s got a knife strapped to each leg.’

‘Well then, you will pay up, Morien!’ Pio pulled her dress above her knees and twirled about. ‘A round of drinks for all on the house!’ She laughed as the chorus of patrons raised their mugs to her with an approving shout.

Pio let her dress drop back to the floor and bending down to Mírënin, asked if she would run upstairs and fetch Baran. As the girl scuttled off to do so, Morien spoke low to the Elf. ‘You’re taking him to the King’s party?’ ‘And what is wrong with that?’ rejoined Pio. ‘His race is not often, indeed if ever, seen in Gondor. I would think the King happy to meet a representative of his subjects from the Vales of the Anduin.’ ‘All I’m thinking,’ said Morien, ‘ is that there will be plenty of eyebrows raised at his presence.’ Pio laughed, ‘Yes, well . . . it should make the party more interesting, eh?!’

She turned, scanning the stairs for Baran’s appearance. ‘Oh, and by the way,’ she chuckled, as Morien moved to fill orders for drinks. ‘You should have guessed my forearms . . .’

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Old 04-13-2004, 11:08 AM   #163
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The Desert calls

A large shadow swept over the wolf clan residence and as it did the guards looked up, seeing them at the last minute the eagle swooped down behind the stables out of sight, she then flew around the back of the building and climb upwards behind the west tower of the house, perching herself atop the conical roof. She had followed the young raven, (as she had chosen to call him) all day and the more she observed his actions the more the feeling of wrongness filled her mind. From the Harbour, the young man went to the market and then to the palace, which did not seem out of place as he seemed to be a trader of some kind. However, her closeness to the palace stirred a great fear within her and the sight of the heavily armed guards who dutifully patrolled the palace walls, did even more.

The sound of a whip cracked disturbing the quiet stillness of the Haradwaith desert, the stinging brought tears to her eyes as the leather tip found purchase and tore at her sweat ridden skin, the salty sweat burning as the she struggled to rise from the blow.

“Move!” was the harsh order that followed. Many Dark skinned Warriors surrounded them and ahead the pennants of Umbar waved in the hot desert winds. However, their destination was not for the great city of the Corsairs instead they had remained on a northerly course, steering east as the desert ended and they neared the river Harnen. Ahead Dark Mountains loomed ominously and she feared that their peoples doom and the doom of all men lay just beyond.

A wrinkled sun blistered hand grasped tenderly at her arm and she looked up into to the concerned eyes of the old Woman she had earlier stopped to give her ration of water too, gaining her the bite of their captors whips. She managed a weak but reassuring smile to let the woman know that she was all right, even though the pain was beginning to become almost unbearable. Nevertheless, she did bear the pain she had to for them! Her gaze took in the other prisoners, mostly mothers and their children who where innocents in this world and should not have been subjected to such fear and uncertainty. Also bound were several young men, no more than boy’s who were just beginning to develop their skills, but had not yet the control to enable their escape. The children were all purposely separated from their parents and she now looked on them with sorrow filled eyes, pulling at her binds as one of the children stumbled and was roughly pulled back up by one of the dark warriors. The whips of her captors again tore at her back and a rough hand gripped her chin pulling her up

“I would learn restraint if I were you, for the revennors of the dark Lord are not so lenient!” the man hissed, his hot breath on her face making her feel nauseous, he pushed her head away and laughed wickedly, "You will see, you will all see!"

“No!” Her pained cry had almost alerted the palace guards to her presence, but thankfully, they had looked down and had not the presence of mind to believe that a bird had made the cry. However, she did not give them the chance to reconsider, she soared high into the clear sky and flew away from the palace and the vision its guards had stirred within her.

She returned to the young mans house, knowing that he would eventually return. And he did, just before sunset. Followed shortly by the two men from the White City. They entered the courtyard accompanied by four guards all dressed in the same fashion as the ones she had observed at the palace. The guards where not permitted to enter the house, which eased her heart greatly, for her instincts told her that these men were not honourable and should not be trusted. But as she listened from her perch to their grumbles and complaints, the uneasiness she had felt before at the palace returned, these men or what they represented frightened her. She launched herself into the air and circled the tower once reluctant to leave, but her fear was too great, memories of dark places filled with death and torment, filled her mind, she had to get away!

She flew into the desert to find quiet solitude in which to sort through these confusing images and to make some sense of them, not far from the city she found a series of caves and rockfaces. Perching herself on a craggy ledge near a large opening, she nestled herself in for the night, preening a few stray feathers before closing her eyes for the night.

“Why did I come here!” she sighed, unable to get the rest she desired. She knew she was not like other eagles and for over a decade, she had been able to forget the pain of her past, but three days in these lands had brought back memories now unfamiliar to her. A wise friend had once told her that she would not be able to hide from herself forever, Perhaps he was right, perhaps now was the time for her to find who she really was.

For the past eighteen years she had remain an observer in this world content to simply learn through observation the way’s of the races of Middle earth, but it was a lonely existence and she often longed for companionship. Although she gained much knowledge from studying the various races, she feared to interact with them, afraid that they would find out her dark secret. In these times of despair, she would flee to the solitude of the mountains, and there she would remain until her curiousity and thirst for knowledge eventually drew her back out into the world.

It was after one of these retreats that she came again to the lands that men called Gondor, and to the port town of Edhellond. The men of this town where Fishermen; tall and strong who relied heavily on fishing and trade to feed and support their growing community, but on this visit she observed that things were not well, the fishing boats returned day after day with empty hauls. arguments and disputes broke out all over the usually peaceful town. More than ever, she felt the desire to help, rather than watch all that these people had achieved fall apart, because of misfortune. She flew out to sea and searched for many weeks looking for some sign or silvery shadow that would denote large shoals, or signs of other animals whose diet consisted of fish.

After two weeks of searching, she found a small isle and basking on its eastern shore were seals and many sea birds of varying types, and to her delight, she saw the silvery shadows of large shoals of varying fish, enough for both the Kelvar of the isle and the men of Edhellond. Flying swiftly back, she found the fishing fleet just outside the bay of Belfalas. She circled the lead ship screeching loudly and flying southwest, but they did not understand and would not follow. So she quickly flew back to the isle and swooped down plucking a fat herring from the water and flying back to the ship and depositing it at the feet of the lead ships captain. Then when the captain looked up, she screeched again and began to fly toward the isle, this time the fleet did follow.

However, as the isle came into view the large fishing vessels stopped. “Meneltarma, Atalantë!” some of the men whispered, but she did not understand their hesitation, again and again she swooped down plucking fish from the sea and depositing them at the feet of the captains, but still they would go no further west. Not understanding she perched on the side of the lead ship and cocked her head at the ships captain. He was tall and strong of build, but for all his long days, at sea he was fairer than the other men of Gondor were and as he regarded the confused bird, his grey eyes sparkled with an ancient sorrow and knowledge.

“I am sorry my friend, but we can go no further, that Isle is all that remains of the once great kingdom of Númenor or Akallabeth as it is more commonly known by those who remember their history of old.“

Although the ships would go no further they did cast out their nets, three days passed with no avail but on the fourth day their patience finally paid off and they pulled the largest haul they had ever seen, catching a bounty of large deep salt-water fish. The return journey was a joy for her to watch, their spirits lifted they spent the evenings in song and storytelling, their voices lifted in mirth and laughter.

She made several journeys with the men of Edhellond, and learned much listening to the tales of the fishing captain, who the others called Aerandil. The sailors of the fishing vessels saw her as a good omen and she often helped them to find good fishing spots, but often her gaze would turn westward hoping to to catch a glimpse of the sacred lands to the west that Aerandil had spoken of in his sad tales about the Lords of Númenor.

One day when the fleet returned to the fishing grounds near where the star isle once stood, she decided to go see if she could see the fair towers of the Eldamar of which Aerandil spoke. But as she passed over Meneltarama, a great storm arose from the sea and engulfed her, before even she could return and warn the ships of its approach. She fought hard to stay in the air, but the strong winds pulled her down and with her feathers water logged she fell to the ground. How long she lay unconscious on the small isle she did not know, but when she awoke the memory of a dream remained with her and no longer did she desire to travel west, instead an urgency to head south grew within her.

In the dream, a large stone city rose from the sands and cast a dark shadow over the desert lands. In this dream, she also saw a strange battle, small olive skinned men fighting each other and animals of varying shapes and sizes aided both sides. Above them, all loomed a large dark shadow that she could not make out, in the blood red of the setting sun.

Remembering the dream, she shuddered. It was now five years since she first had the dream, and although urgency had initially welled within her, the further she got from the isle the more she thought the dream unimportant and no more than a feverish nightmare. She strayed from her course, lingering for a time in the forests and mountains of the North, but over the past year, the dream returned, haunting her and in the hope of finding some release from its torment she came south, if not only to prove to herself it was nothing but a dream.

But the longer she remained in these lands the more uncomfortable she felt, finding the young man in the desert was hap stance or so she believed. But now as she thought on her feelings regarding the young mans presence in the city and how wrong and out of place it had seemed, she realised that it was not only him, but his whole household and even herself, who did not belong in the city of the Corsairs, In the city she felt caged and restricted… suffocating! But out here in the desert, she felt free and at one with the land, a freedom that brought with it a strong sense of familiarity.

As she tried to digest these thoughts and the fear she had experienced at the sight of the cities soldiers along with the slowly emerging memories of her past, something caught her eye. A rider less horse! The beast stopped just outside the cave she was perched above and a moment later a spotted leopard darted past into the cave, but the horse remained un-startled, stranger still the beast followed the dangerous predator inside.

After some debate with herself about the danger, her curiosity got the better of her and she flew down to the ground and cautiously walked inside. The horse much to her relief was still alive and stood quietly just inside the opening, venturing further she saw the big cat curled up, seemingly asleep at the rear of the cave. Cocking her head, she watched the gentle rise and fall of the beast’s chest as it slept.

“What a strange friendship!” she mused quietly. The leopard stirred causing her to jump, suddenly realising how venerable she was in this enclosed space she tried to get out quickly, but as she jumped up to take quick flight she misjudge the height of the caves roof and hit her head hard, falling to the ground.

“Ouch” she whispered, groggily, rubbing her head under her wing.

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Old 04-13-2004, 02:49 PM   #164
Mithadan
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Saelon sucked on his lower lip as he sat watch at the helm of the Lonely Star. It was a moonless night but, by the movement of the stars, he estimated that two hours had passed since nightfall. The crew appeared to be below decks, resting from a hard day's work. In reality, the work continued below, as all cargo was being secured and, where necessary, lashed down as they made ready to get underway. Saelon glanced over to the larger of the two corsairs. Several men were above decks, cups in their hands, chatting and sometimes singing. It was time.

"Duilin!" he hissed. "Bring up the barrels."

Several men brought up oak barrels from the deck below. Two were large and the third a smaller cask. Wax seals covered holes at their bases and southron runes were written on their sides. "Seems a right shame to have this go to waste," said one of the men. Saelon smiled. "Oh, it won't go to waste if all goes well," he answered. They laid the kegs atop of a cart and wheeled it carefully down the gangway. This action caught the attention of the guards stationed on the dock.

"Oi there!" cried one. "Where do you think you're going?"

Saelon smiled and lifted the smaller cask from the cart and brought it over to the guardhouse. He placed it on a piling and then pulled a spigot from his pocket which he hammered through the wax seal. "Compliments of Captain Mithadan," he said. "We wish to thank you for your help and hospitatility." One of the guards drew a cup from the cask and sniffed at it. Then he smiled and drained it in a gulp. His mates laughed as he coughed at the strength of the draught, but none refused a cup of their own. "And what of these other kegs?" asked one.

"For the crews of the corsairs," Saelon answered. "Its a tradition in Gondor to give gifts to your hosts and show respect to other captains." The guard nodded, but watched carefully as the kegs were delivered. Drink or no, he made sure that the men of the Star returned to their ship before the revelry commenced. Soon, both the docks and the corsairs were alive with loud voices as the contents of the kegs were tapped.

Saelon sat at the helm and watched with a nod of approval. Then he ducked down below decks. There in the hall were four other large casks. He patted them affectionately before ascending the ladder again. An hour later, the voices on the docks and the corsairs were singing off-key and not a few minor arguments had erupted. One or two men were already slumping down onto the decks. All was well. But where were Mithadan and Airefalas?
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Old 04-13-2004, 06:01 PM   #165
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Rôg


Where does the old fool think he’s going? Surely he can’t be thinking he’ll hoof it into the camp . . . the stick is hardly a disguise . . . and to be quite honest, with his hair all awry from sleep and blowing in the breeze, he looks half mad . . .

Aiwendil had grabbed a small leather pouch and some old walking stick and tottered over a small rise, dropping for a moment from the little bird’s sight. Rôg rose into the air and flew after him.

Ah, good! He hasn’t gone far . . . in fact, he’s stopped . . .

Landing on a thin twig of a nearby leafless thorn bush, Rôg cocked his head to one side and watched as the man stood staring at the distant camp. His face had gone soft, unfocused, and he seemed to be listening to something. Rôg turned one feathered ear and then the other in the direction of the camp; he could hear nothing other than the night’s breeze rattling the little bush he’d perched on. He was about to fly to his companion's shoulder, to tell him to come back – they’d figure something out to get him into the Eagle camp.

And then the old man sat down. Planting his scrawny haunches firmly in the sand, Aiwendil had gathered his stick and pouch onto his lap and hunched over them. A look of pained concentration played on his face in the moonlight for the briefest of moments, making Rôg wonder if he had been overcome with some illness.

Fur and feathers! The strain of the journey has been too much for him . . . add to that the news I blurted out . . . it’s knocked him over the edge to be sure . . . This stream of thoughts dissolved in a sudden shimmer that blurred the little bird’s eyes.

Aiwendil had disappeared!

Rôg flapped frantically to where the old man had been seated. Save for the shallow indent in the sand where Aiwendil had sat down, there was no sign of him. And then, a little way in the distance came a tiny voice . . . calling to him . . .

~*~

‘And just what have you done with my companion!’

Rôg’s words came out slightly muffled. He had the moth gently, but quite firmly, secured in his beak, his question leaking out round the fuzzy torso of the small brown insect. He had flown back to the thorn bush and was threatening to impale the protesting moth if the truth were not forthcoming.

‘Well?’ he prompted, joggling the moth a bit as if to shake the answer from him.

A stream of gruff invective preceded not an explanation but a command.

‘You featherbrained skinchanger!’ ‘Put me down, now!’

The moth’s antennae twitched irritably as the bird sat him on a twig. ‘Nothing’s been done to your companion!’ The little brown moth peered up at his suspicious captor and sighed. ‘I’m right here. And time’s wasting away for the clan leader you spoke of while you question me.’

Rôg stumbled backward, fluttering his wings to keep himself from falling off the branch. ‘A maenwaith!’ he spluttered. ‘All this time you remained hidden; you never told me?!’ He looked down his beak at the insect. ‘And just what clan are you from?’

‘We don’t have time for answers right now, Rôg. The story is long . . . and . . . complicated. It can wait for a later time.’ Aiwendil fluttered his wings in preparation to fly off. One had been crumpled slightly, when Rôg had interrogated him, causing him to fly crazy spirals in the breeze as he took off.

The bird shook his head at the erratic, ineffective pattern and launched himself after the old man. One small foot reached out as he flew over him and enclosed the moth in a taloned cage.

‘Just hang on . . . I’ll get us there.’

Aiwendil, being a captive audience, had to endure the endless string of questions the little bird threw at him. Answers from the moth were not forthcoming. And it was with relief that he finally crawled from the Bee-eater’s grasp as they landed on the clan leader’s tent.

‘Down there,’ whispered Rôg, poking his beak into the smokehole. ‘Can you see her?’ he went on, as the moth peered over the rim of fabric . . .

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Old 04-15-2004, 11:19 AM   #166
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Gondor - the party is over/the night passing

Standing at the edge of the great hall, Pio took advantage of the heavy dark draperies swagged back with thick silvered cording along the pillared alcoves. A moment before, a liveried serving man had come round with flutes of wine, chilled whites and the warmer reds; the glasses winked at her in the brilliance of the of the numerous many-branched candelabrum that stood on stone ledges along the walls.

The elf had smiled graciously at the man as she removed two goblets, one red, one white. ‘Non-partisan,’ she said as the man quickly covered a look of surprise. His face composed itself into a perfect non-committal mask as she downed the white and sat it on the stone bench near her, next to a small line of other emptied goblets, all queued up quite neatly. He moved on as she sipped the red, pausing ever so quickly to whisper to another server that the lady needed her empty goblets removed.

Pio moved further into the shadows and watched as the King spoke at length with Baran. She could see the clusters of other invitees from the merchant community in Gondor clump together in whispery groups, their eyes straying often to the King and the Beorning, their faces expressing mistrust of the giant of a man and ill-hidden repudiation of his right to be here at the party, or in Gondor at all if she read their demeanors correctly. They were disposed to cover their sneering looks quickly whenever the King looked round; he had made it clear that he welcomed the Beorning to this party as an emissary from north western Rhovanion, and that he was eager that Gondor and the Beornings be in good standing with one another.

Derylin had come up quietly behind the Elf, chuckling softly at her quiet assessment of the party. ‘I thought you would not be here,’ he said quietly as he sipped his own wine. ‘And I would not have been so,’ she said not taking her gaze from the clutch of Master merchants who now stood together, their mouths gawping in some exchange of conversation, like a school of hungry carp. ‘Not at all, but that my hand was forced by the concerted efforts of my children, their aunt, and not the least, Cook.’ Pio sighed, turning toward her dueling partner and raised her wine to him. ‘To be sure, I would rather be crossing blades with you at the moment, than feinting at words with the members of this party.’

They stood in companionable silence for a while, Derylin growing skeptical as a look of deviousness pulled up the corners of Pio’s mouth. ‘Now what?’ he asked himself as she turned toward him with a considering expression. ‘I propose we give the good folk something else to chew over for a while,’ she said placing her hand lightly on his arm and prompting him out to the dance floor. The small ensemble on the raised stone dais at the other end of the room had just begun the lead in for one of the dances popular in Gondor.

Soon eyes and tongues had turned to the couple on the floor . . . the married woman . . . what was she thinking! . . . her husband gone away on a mission for the King himself . . . and here she is dancing with the very single, deliberately uncommitted handsome man . . . make that heartbreaker, snickered some . . . has she no sense at all . . . and her with three small children at home . . . and wasn’t she the one who came with the Skinchanger to start with . . . Tongues wagged on, their unsought comments rising and falling with the notes of the music, as the couples on the dance floor swirled past.

It was later that night, as the party wound down to its conclusion that Pio gathered up Baran along with her cloak, and saying her good-byes to the host and hostess maneuvered them through the remaining throng to the coach portico. A tired man brought round her cart, holding the horses steady as the Elf and Beorning clambered aboard and took their seats. Pio took a deep breath of the cool night air and laughed as she flicked the reins lightly along the horses’ flanks.

‘I hope you had a passably pleasant time this evening, my dear Baran,’ she said, grinning impishly at him. ‘I did, for the most part.’ She glanced up at him, letting the horses take their lead down the pathway to the bottom level of the city. ‘I do regret we did not have the chance to dance.’ She maneuvered the team round a stack of barrels just delivered to one of the upper level inns. ‘And you . . . how was your night? I saw you long in conversation with the King. How did you find him?’

She eased herself into a position of comfort and watched the withers of the horses move up and down in a slow rhythm. He shifted his bulk on the cart seat and she turned her gaze toward him for a moment, one brow raised in question.

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Old 04-16-2004, 10:25 AM   #167
Nerindel
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Hálfr (Raakaharn/ Wolf chieftain)

A stocky well built man in his early fifties sat at his desk, thoughtfully stroking his well kept greying beard as he looked over the maps and notes that littered his desk. It had been a long and troubling day and it was not yet over, he put down the map he had been studying and rose to stretch the stiffness out of his legs, arching his back and letting a tired yawn escape his lips he wandered over to the large arched windows of his office. Opening the wooden shutters, he looked out into the clear desert night sky and onto the growing Maenwaith city.

All had been going according to plan, with many of the residential builds already complete, but the larger and more important buildings were taking a little longer to build, as it was proving more difficult than first imagined to gather the raw material, without drawing unwanted attention. However that was soon to change, several months ago with the approval of his mother Markal had established another smaller settlement, about three days south east of the city on the banks of a river that ran it course to the inner sea where the outriders had reported fertile lands for crops and livestock. The outriders also reported finding a thick grey coloured mud that dried hard when left in the heat of the sun to dry. It had been agreed that they should see if this new discovery could be put to use, and that evening a messenger from the village arrived reporting that they had managed to make strong bricks by mixing the dark clay with the sand of the desert and that they would send a shipment for them to examine.

Slowly he drew away from the window rubbing his temples, that had been the only good news of the day, the Stone meant for Wyrma’s main headquarters’ had been destroyed during a seasonal desert storm And all indications pointed to a rampaging Oliphaunt. The odd thing was that there did not seem to be any tracks leading to or from the storage area. Shaking his head wearily he sat back down, almost instantly the rumours had spread that there was a Maenwaith that could take the form of one of these mighty, but unpredictable beasts, Even Kumat Wyrma’s third son was inclined to believe that the destruction was an act of sabotage from one of the rebel clans. This troubled him greatly, he had faith in his men and could not believe that someone or thing could have got past them undetected, but it had, be it saboteur or simply a wild Oliophant whose tracks were covered by the shifting sands in the storm.

By now, Kumat would be delivering the news to his mother and in the morning, they would have her orders. But in the mean time, he would concentration on another possible problem that his son had relied to him in a message. Pushing his left hand into his pocket he pulled out the folded piece of parchment and carefully unfolding it, he read over its contents once more. It spoke of strangers from the northlands, who asked openly of their kind, in the city of their enemy. He could tell from reading that his son was not only concerned that the strangers would find what they where looking for, but also that they would inevitably alert lord Falasmir to their presence, which would undo all that they had so far achieved.

A curt knock at the door, made him look up and in entered Wyrma’s second son and his chief lieutenant, Walat. “You sent for me, Raakaharn?” Walat said standing tall and straight before his desk. An approving smile crossed his lips, of all of Wyrma’s son’s Walat was the only one to display any regard for discipline and order, he also displayed the traits of becoming an admiral tactician and his skill with the sword was remarkable to say the least, he had been his most impressive student to date. But his candidness and straightforwardness left him being un-liked by many, but not Hálfr he liked the man’s candour.

“Yes, Walat. Korpulfr has sent some troubling news for the city” he handed the message to Walat watching the expression of his lieutenant as he quickly read the news.

“You want me to increase the watch?” Walat asked looking up and handing back the parchment.

Hálfr nodded, “But I think we should also send out a few scouts, just to keep an eye out for any strangers,” he added.

Walat nodded his agreement and his eye showed that he understood that Hálfr was not only referring to the northerners but of the uninvited visitor, they had apparently missed earlier.

“Be sure that the scouting party are made aware that they are to keep out of sight and report any unscheduled passage, no matter how insignificant it might seem!” He added as Walat turned to leave. The young man nodded curtly and left to carry out his orders. Halfr grinned certain that Walat would chose to lead the scouting party himself.

Hálfr rose again and looked west in the direction of Umbar, “Soon!” he grinned subversively raising his hand and clenching his fist. “Yes soon I will have my revenge and those who thought to destroy the wolf clan or abandon them to their fate, will regret having let me live!” he hissed coldly into the dark night.

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Old 04-16-2004, 10:36 AM   #168
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Aiwendil:

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Aiwendil peered intently in the direction Rôg had pointed. He could barely discern the shadowy outline of what appeared to be a young woman, enfolded in a great cloak and asleep on a mat drawn up near the foot of the bed on which her older patient lay. Relieved to find no one else in the tent, the small moth fluttered closer, alighting on a wooden stool that stood close by. Aiwendil slipped back into his original form, still supporting the staff on his lap and bearing a leather pouch with herbs and potions that had been slung over his shoulder.

Aiwendil glanced quickly from one woman to the other. The striking resemblence between the two suggested they were kinfolk, quite possibly mother and daughter. From the taut look on the younger woman's face and the damp rag draped through her splayed fingers, Aiwendil suspected that she had crumpled to the mat exhausted from her bedside nursing vigil and had immediately fallen into a deep slumber.

The istar quietly approached and, leaning over, placed his hands on either side of the older woman's brow. He hesitated for a moment, uncertain what to do. Then he glanced upward, hoping that he could see Rôg somewhere nearby and gain some reassurance from the presence of a friend. But the tiny bird was nowhere to be seen.

Aiwendil's skills as a healer had been learned long ago in the household of Yavanna where he had tended the birds and beasts that dwelt within the golden gardens. More recently, he had practiced those same skills in the forests of Mirkwood working with a host of different animals, but he had little experience or knowledge to draw upon when dealing with Men. Cautiously, he let his mind inch outward to meet with hers. The old man met no resistence to his gentle probing, but neither did he feel an answering response.

Still, it was not difficult to do. He probed a bit deeper and, skirting around the welter of tormented hallucinations that afflicted the woman's mind, was able to catch the name by which she went and glean some idea of who she was. He reached out again to initiate more intimate contact, but drew back suddenly when he sensed how precariously she lay suspended between the forces of life and death. Her fea was like a pitiful candle that had burnt dangerously low, whose tiny flame might flicker and die at any moment. There was painfully little he could do to help a mortal who lay so close to the realm of Mandos.

A cursory outward examination of Ayar did nothing to allay his fears. Aiwendil could see the inflamed wound on the back of Ayar's neck through which the poison had entered her body. With a sigh, the istar turned to his bag of herbs and potions. He could not stop the inevitable course of the drug, but perhaps he could soften some of the pain and even draw the woman back to consciousness so that she might speak with her family one last time. First, he administered a tincture of poppies, the bright red flower that can bring gentle respite from pain. Then he probed deep within Ayar's mind, looking for ways to draw her back from her nightmare visions so that she might again see and speak with those around her.

Just as the old man sat back on the stool from his work, tired and less careful than he should have been, the staff lying across his lap slipped loose and clattered noisily downward, hitting a large silver pot in which incense burned, then bouncing off and thudding to the ground. The young woman sleeping at the foot of the bed stirred in her sleep, then sat up abruptly, focusing shocked eyes on this unbelievably tall stranger who now sat no more than two feet away. Narika half-stifled a scream, then willed herself to gain control. In an instant she had changed from human to eagle form and, half thrashing her way through the tent's smokehole, rose up on sturdy wings high above the encampment to sound the alarm that one or more dangerous strangers were in their midst.

Aiwendil hastily considered whether it wouldn't be wise to shift shapes himself and make a speedy retreat from this settlement. However, something inside his head inconveniently whispered that this was not the right thing to do. He quickly retrieved his staff and leapt to his feet, standing to face the entrance of the tent and preparing for the inevitable assault. The tent flap was suddenly drawn back from the outside so that he could see a party of maenwaith in human form, all carrying arms of various types. At the front of the group stood one who was obviously their leader, his eyes full of fury as he prepared to lunge forward and avenge the woman he loved whose tent had been violated by this unknown intruder.

For a moment, everything hung suspended as Thorn drew back his weapon and prepared to strike. Then, from the rear of the tent, a familliar voice cried out a plaintive warning. Struggling to sit up amid the tangled bedclothes, still weak and pitifully ill, Ayar called out commanding her people, "Wait! Do not harm him. He is a friend....."

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Pio’s post – Rôg

Rôg kept his eye firmly fixed on Aiwendil as he fluttered down toward the stricken woman and then changed back to mannish form. ‘Hurry up!’ he muttered to the figure below, his piping admonition blown away in the night’s breeze. Only the younger woman who sat drowsing near the sickbed remained of the tableau he had seen earlier. ‘Hurry, old man! The clansman I saw may come back,’ he called out softly again.

There was no response and naught to do but get closer to his companion and hasten him along. With a small leap he jumped down, aiming for the cowl of Aiwendil’s robe. He had landed, but barely, when the clatter of the old man’s staff rang loud against the metal of some pot and a loud, high pitched scream filled the small area followed by the rush of wings upward. Aiwendil rose up quickly tensing himself for the expected assault, and in doing so jostled poor Rog’s precarious grasp on the neckline of the robe. The young man fell willy-nilly down inside the material covering the old man’s chest. His six legs scrabbled wildly to find purchase and turn himself upright. Climbing quickly to the edge of the neckline, he peeked over, antennae waving wildly at the sound of running feet and loud cries approaching the tent.

‘Well here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,’ he hissed up at Aiwendil as the tent flap was thrown back and the armed men entered. One of them, the fellow that Rôg had spied previously in the tent, raised his sword preparing to charge. The young man’s eyes bugged out and he crept along the collar’s rim to hide beneath the old man’s hair.

As he waited for the inevitable blow to fall, a commanding voice from behind called out. Silence followed, and Rôg rubbed his wings in a nervous, rapid rhythm as the moment stretched out.

‘Thorn!’ cried one of the male voices that had entered. ‘I’ll be a billy-goat’s uncle if you don’t hear it . . . but isn’t the old guy’s hair chirping . . .’

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Old 04-16-2004, 10:48 AM   #169
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Thorn & Surinen

Thorn was troubled when he left the tent, striding through the night to see if the guards had discovered any new signs in the deep darkness. Troubled that Ayar showed no signs of improvement from the many tinctures and infusions that his sister had continued to send, troubled that Surinen had not yet returned, and that in continually tending to her mother, he was doubly concerned that Narika had not allowed herself the rest she needed to meet the demands of either mother or clan. And though he had tried many times he could not persuade her to do otherwise. Still she sat close by Ayar in the dimness, through the weary and bleak hours of the evening.

So it had been when Thorn left them, but now in the pitch black of night, a scream was heard across the camp and the heavy beat of an eagle wings circling low over the encampment once, twice, three times, shrieking all the while before leading those to responded quickly to the well known tent that lay at its hub. There were only very few in the clan who knew the eagle’s ways intimately. And this bird, this voice Thorn knew well. Together they had winged many hours above the desert, enjoying the thermals of the mountains, gliding over the cliffs in their less burdened days. But now her cry invoked a surge of fury within him.

Without taking his leave, and without biding the guards to follow, Thorn sprang into motion at that sound, his taut nerves rebounding as he anticipated the worst. Running across the packed sand, without stopping he grabbed the first lance he came to, holding it poised over his shoulder in warning for all to see as he ran for the leader’s tent. His heart pounding by the time he finally cast it aside, and drawing his sword threw back the tent flap intending to pierce the first stranger he found there, pinning him to the ground he stood upon. Poising himself to strike down this intruder, Thorn noticed movement behind the elderly man he was met with. Ayar was struggling to raise herself up upon her elbows.

“Wait!” she said in a commanding voice. “Do not harm him, He is a friend….”

Thorn hesitated, wanting to obey the direction of his leader, but questioning her presence of mind. She might not know of what she spoke, and a delay might prove costly. But then this stranger made no attempt to defend himself or escape. Thorn slowly lowered his sword seeing that the guards had followed him into the tent.

From behind him he heard a familiar voice saying “I’ll be a Billy-goat’s uncle if you don’t hear it…but isn’t the old guy’s hair chirping?” Indeed the old man did appear to be chirping somehow. But Thorn did not allow himself to be distracted, amusing as it was.

"Who are you, old man? And what is your business with us, that you should enter unannounced and unaccompanied?" Thorn shouted sharply. "It is late and do you not see there is great sickness in this tent? Why have you not approached those outside, instead of troubling the ill and the sleeping?" Pausing expectantly, Thorn waited for some plausible explanation, but the elderly man gave none, and only rubbed his jaw carefully as if lost in thought behind the bright blue eyes that had stared at this fierce show, considering what might be done. After a few long moments, Thorn grew impatient and demanded again, "What are you doing in our camp? Should I know you?"

"That is the question," the old man finally sighed leaning heavily on his staff as he glanced from Thorn to Ayar and back again, waving absently at an insect that could be seen for a moment apparently intent upon the old man’s ear. Thorn didn't know what to make of this old man…this tall, albeit bent, foreigner -no doubt a grandfather many times over - who stood before him. He had as much of a threatening air as a child who accidentally spills a jar of water and stares at those who would reprimand him not guessing the seriousness of it.

But seeing now that Ayar was still awake and had managed now to sit up weakly in her bed, Thorn softened. "Which is the question? I have asked you many questions!"

"The question? 'Why am I here?' That is the question. To help… I've come to try and help her ", he said gesturing toward the bed were Ayar was seated among her cushions intently watching the proceedings. “Surely, she needs help? Is it not so?"

“Yes, this is so.” Nodding subtly toward the leather pouch the old man carried, Thorn changed his line of questioning, "But what have you done? What tonic have you given her that she is now awake and relieved in her illness?” But even before these words had left his mouth, Thorn heard someone hailing him from outside the tent, and turning, he saw that many tanned faces where now peering in the tent opening, jostling one another for a better view. And through these as well as the ring of those armed, quickly pushed a wiry man with curling black hair. Once perceiving the stranger so close to his leader, this maenwaith slowed in his purpose, growing wary, with rapidly changing expression.

“What is it Surinen?” Thorn heard Narika ask as she followed him into the tent working her way through the throng to her mother’s side. Surinen looked the stranger up and down, reluctant to answer.

“It is alright, you may speak,” Thorn encouraged his friend, watching Narika to see if she appeared to be hurt.

“We have found a camp site outside our borders.”

“Are there others to be found aside this one that we have here?” Thorn asked.

“No, we have found no one else,” the outrider replied slowing walking up to the old man who was chirping very loudly at this point. Surinen sniffed the air, his eyes widening as a smile returned to his face. He bowed slightly to the old man. “But there is one other we have not seen, or so it would appear,” he said over his shoulder to Thorn. “Excuse me grandfather, but I think you carry an acquaintance of my mine.” Slowly reaching out to pluck the cricket from his hair, the old man blocked him quickly with his staff. “That is alright, I can see you are acquainted as well. I will speak from here if it is all right…. Rôg? ” He said peering at the old man’s shoulder. “Rôg, I think that I have finally found your camel if you have indeed lost it. It is outside the tent just now.”

The scruffy old man shook out his arm, as if it has gone quite stiff, and looking up toward the smoke hole and the stars beyond, he took a slow deep breath. Surinen stepped back a pace, “I am sorry grandfather. I do not mean to crowd you. It is stuffy in here.”

But Thorn turned back to those gathered at the door, addressing them in the clan's dialect, saying, "We have two strangers in our midst tonight. And they shall be staying with us until such time we decide they are free to go. If they or any other is found drifting though the camp, they are to be dealt with strictly." Then speaking again to the elderly man he said, "I have told these people that you are not to leave or wander until such a time when we decide to let you. Do you understand this? It is for your safety as well as ours, for we are suffering the ill favor of some that would sorely harm us, and we cannot be overly careful."

The old man nodded, not meeting Thorn’s eyes, but looking to where the upturned pot of incense had smoldered and small yet lively flame grew dancing upon the edge of the grass mat.

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Old 04-19-2004, 02:32 PM   #170
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Mithadan and Airefalas walked quickly through a small crowd which stood swaying and clapping as a musician performed. Then they dodged quickly into a dark alley where they paused to remove the extra knives from their bags and cloaks and slip them into their belts. Airefalas stepped carefully from the alley into the wider street, looking both ways before motioning for Mithadan to follow. The road led roughly to the north and they moved rapidly along, keeping to the shadows.

In the late evening, the market was a sea of darkness, lit at places by lanterns and fires where the locals were gathered for entertainment. Here and there, alleys branched off to the left and the right, some guarded by men with spears or clubs and others shadowy as a cloudy night. The Gondorians avoided the brightness of the lamps and fires, but skirted the pools of light closely enough so that they could see the people around them. It seemed to them as if everyone they passed paused to examine their clothing as if weighing whether they were a worthy target.

After several minutes, the road forked. They paused briefly to examine both routes. The road to the right seemed to continue on to the north while the way to the left took a westerly course. By silent agreement, they chose the fork towards the west and, they hoped, the docks. For a while, it seemed as if they had chosen well, but after a time, the road curved gradually to the left again. The islands of light grew fewer and farther apart as they moved along uncertainly. "We are heading south again," hissed Mithadan. "We must go back." Airefalas examined a narrow alley which led off to the right for a moment, then nodded in agreement. They turned and retraced their steps, only to find their progress blocked by three burly men. Each held a spear on one hand and a bottle in the other...

-------

Time seemed to fly at the docks, as Saelon peered out into the night. Duilin stood nest to him when he was not pacing the decks. "It is well after midnight," growled Duilin. "And our friends on the corsairs appear to be asleep. May strong drink bring them sound slumbers."

Saelon descended from the helm to the main deck and leaned on the rail while looking down at the docks. There was no sign of movement in the guards' tent either. He sighed. "We will wait a bit longer," he said nervously. "But we cannot wait long. The next shift of the guard will arrive in perhaps an hour or so. We cannot risk running afoul of their arrival."

"The Captain..." began Duilin.

"The Captain warned us not to wait," growled Saelon. "As he should. His first duty is to the crew as is ours. If we wait too long, we will be fighting on the docks against insurmountable odds in the morning. He has given us a chance. We must take it...soon."

The minutes passed faster than Saelon cared to think. Below decks, he could hear the tense murmurs of the crew as they awaited the order to depart. But at last, he knew he could wait no longer. "Bring the next set of 'deliveries' to the corsairs and the docks," he instructed. "And Duilin, be quiet. If you run across anyone awake and asking questions, do not hesitate. Kill them if you have to..."
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Old 04-19-2004, 10:13 PM   #171
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Aiwendil

Aewindil nodded and shrugged his shoulders, mumbling a few words of reassurance that he had no intention of trying to wander off from camp. The istar wondered if Rôg would show the same good sense, but kept his doubts to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, the old man caught a glimpse of an overturned incense pot whose glowing cinders were just beginning to spill out over the mat. With all the excitement of the past few minutes, and the dark shadows that flickered and played along the walls of the tent, no one else had yet noticed that the pot had overturned.

Searching for an excuse to turn away and look at things more closely, Aiwendil hastily bent down to retrieve his leather pouch that he'd set on the floor shortly after he'd finished working with Ayar. He ran his eyes along the ground, noting that a tiny sheet of flame had already escaped from the pot of incense and was beginning to run silently along the mat of woven grass in the direction of Ayar's bed. For a moment Aiwendil did not react. He frequently had difficulties coping with the vagaries of life in Middle-earth and could not comprehend that something like this could be happening in the middle of someone's tent, especially when he was surrounded by a contingent of armed Men.

As realization set in, Aiwendil excitedly blurted out a warning in Quenyan, which no one in the room could understand, and lunged for the broom that the servant girl had left leaning against the chest where Ayar normally stored the family's clothes and linens. Seizing the broom and raising it high above his head, the istar brought it down authoritatively several times in a series of grand thumps, hoping to smother the flames and keep them from spreading. Unfortunately, the only thing he accomplished was to fan the blaze still further. The small leaping tendrils of fire caught hold of the old straw broom and began to shoot up even higher.

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Old 04-19-2004, 11:09 PM   #172
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Rôg

‘I must remember not to ride on his shoulders all that much in these smaller forms.’ Rôg dug his little spiny feet into the fabric of Aiwendil’s robe as the old fellow shrugged his shoulders. He was beginning to feel a bit queasy as the waves of robe rose and fell.

There was a sudden drop in altitude as the old man bent down to retrieve something from the floor. Looking for a good place to hop off, Rog’s eyes took in the low sheet of flame that crept along the grass mat. Hundreds of tiny flames flickered across his multi-imaged vision, running like a small destructive river toward the ill woman’s bed. The cricket froze in place for a moment, his only thought to escape.

With a dizzying lurch the old man had now gotten to his feet and yelling out something in a strangled voice. The others in the room, brows now furrowed in confusion, looked at him in and uncomprehending manner, the warning lost on them. They don’t speak any Elvish tongues! Rôg shouted in a small chittery voice. The words were lost on Aiwendil who grabbed a nearby broom and began beating at the flames . . . to no avail. The greedy fire leapt onto the long, dry straw with a whoosh, sending smoke and little licks of hungry flame flying out to devour whatever they landed on. Shouts of alarm and the loud tumult of bodies moving in a disordered way through the growing smoke filled the tent.

With a leap born of fear, Rôg jumped in the direction of the head of the pallet where Ayar lay, her eyes wide at the scene in the tent. Assuming his mannish form he knelt near her and leaned in close to speak quietly in her own dialect. ‘Have no fear, Meldakhar,’ he assured her as best he might in his shaky voice. He pulled the thin sheet over her nose and mouth to hold out what smoke it would; then thrusting his arms beneath her frail body, he cradled her close against him and pushed out through the loose fabric at the rear of the tent. ‘Close your eyes. There will be fresh, sweet air soon,’ he murmured as if to a small child, reassuring himself as much as her.

There were shouts and the sound of feet running. Rôg had taken only a few steps away from the tent with his burden when a chorus of raised voices called out for him to stop. The angry men swirled about him, ringing him in, clubs and lances bristling . . .

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Old 04-20-2004, 01:57 AM   #173
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Mus’ad and Nizar on the job at the Party

Mus’ad held his breath, offering a quick plea to some random patron spirit as he rolled the well worn bones. Across the hardpacked dirt of the alley, in the flickering light of two small torches just beyond the kitchen’s entrance, they skittered, bouncing off the rough stone wall of the compound and coming to a final rest just inches from the man’s toes.

‘Last time I ask you for help,’ Mus’ad muttered, casting one eye upward at the dark night sky.

He kicked out at the two offending coiled bush vipers who glared up with their malevolent carved eyes from the knucklebones. He spit on the ground and shook his head as the man he was playing against collected the few coins piled in the clay bet dish. Pouring himself another mug of wine from the skin the three kitchen-boys had brought out, he leaned against the scraggly tree that stood alongside the stone wall and watched another fellow pick up the dice to try his luck. The smell from the tray of left over savories brought out from the party enticed him. His belly grumbled in anticipation as his hand reached down and snatched up a few.

Some time later, a mug or two of wine and several handfuls of spiced pastries under his belt, and he felt ready again to try his hand at rolling the bones. His fingers, licked clean of crumbs, hovered just above the dice when he hear the worried nasal tones of his brother call out to him.

‘Did you see him?’ asked Nizar, ignoring the usual irritated look Mus’ad threw him as he stood up.

‘Why are you not in the Wolf’s house? Keeping watch on our friend, Tinar.’ Mus’ad whispered low in his brother’s ear. Wyrma had directed them to keep an eye on her young son, make sure he didn’t get into any trouble, or worse yet, get Herself and her precious plans in trouble.

‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you!’ Nizar drew the ragged end of his neck scarf under his red, and dripping nose, eliciting a scowl from his brother. He had been in his dung-beetle form, the one he did most easily, and the dust from the curtains he’d hidden in had stuffed up his rather large nose, causing it to run.

‘Well . . . ?’ prompted Mus’ad, itching to get back to the dice game. One of the other players had picked them up and fortune must have smiled on his throw as he uttered a loud whoop of excitement.

Nizar related the events of the party, speeding up as Mus’ad’s eyebrows twitched in irritation. ‘. . . and then those two foreigners left . . . with Tinar following! . . . can you imagine that! . . .’ he finished up in a breathless rush.

Mus’ad’s head was beginning to throb. ‘Tinar . . . left?’ he squeaked out. Wyrma would have their heads if they didn’t find him. He rubbed ineffectually at his temples, his mind racing furiously to come up with a plan. He grabbed his brother’s shoulders and spoke slowly to him. ‘You go back to Wyrma’s place.’ He whispered the recent password to get past the many guards at Herself’s place, and had his brother repeat it a number of times until Mus’ad was satisfied it was imprinted on Nizar’s memory. ‘Tell her what Tinar has done and that I am following after him. Ask her if she has any instructions.’ Nizar stood nodding his head at his brothers list. ‘Where’m I gonna meet you if Herself has things she wants done?’

‘You said they went toward the markets. I’ll meet you at the booth that flies the scorpion flag.’ Nizar’s eyes lit up at the thought of the peppery delicacy. ‘We’re not meeting for dinner! Pay attention!’ Bring your news from Herself and we’ll go on from there . . .’ Mus’ad pushed his brother off in the direction of Wyrma’s place and turned in the direction of the marketplace.

‘Now just how would that young pup think to follow the foreigners?’ he thought as he trotted down the alleyway, making for the vendors’ place . . .
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Old 04-21-2004, 11:37 AM   #174
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Saelon, Duilin and two other crewmembers slowly and carefully carried three large barrels down the gangplank of the Lonely Star. No cart would do for this delivery, for they could not risk the noise that wheels would make on the wooden planks. The first barrel they carried to the larger of the two corsairs, easing their burden quietly up the vessel's gangway. As they had suspected, the crew was fast asleep having imbibed deeply of the fiery drink they had delivered earlier. Stepping over a prone and snoring Southron, they deposited the barrel beside the rail facing the Star at about amidship.

The second barrel was similarly situated on the second corsair. During this delivery, a drunk and bleary-eyed sailor roused himself briefly to ask the Gondorians what they were about. A tense moment followed during which Saelon and Duilin rested their hands upon the blades of their knives while they explained that Captain Mithadan had instructed them to deliver wine for the following day. The besotted sailor nodded happily and rested his head on the deck. In a matter of minutes he was snoring again and the Gondorians were beating a hasty retreat from the corsair.

The third barrel was placed upon the docks just outside the tent that the guards had erected. Judging from the snores coming from within, a dozen barrels could have been delivered without rousing the guards, thought Saelon.

The men returned to the Star, pulling up the gangway once they reached its deck. "On my order, cut the lines," hissed Saelon. Then he looked forward to where other crewmen were positioned, ready to raise the ship's sails. He held up a finger, one minute, and looked down to the docks in hope of seeing Mithadan and Airefalas emerge from the shadows. But the docks remained silent and desolate. Reluctantly, he called three men forward. Each held a bow and arrows with oil-sodden cloths wrapped just behind the steel arrowheads. Each also held an unshuttered lantern with the wicks burning merrily. "Take your positions," Saelon whispered tensely.

As the bowman crawled to their spots, Saelon scanned the docks one last time. Then he signalled for the lines to be cut. A second wave directed the sails to be raised. The ship lurched as the breeze caught the billowing cloths and the bow of the Star swerved and struck the larger corsair with a loud crash. Voices rose in surprise and concern on the black ship as men were roused from their drunken slumbers. Then Saelon nodded to the bowmen even as he raced to the helm. Each lit an arrow and they raised their bows, drawing the strings back in smooth and practiced motions. The arrows whistled as they were loosed and flew straight and true, eack piercing a barrel. In an abundance of caution, each bowman shot a second flaming dart, even as the Star eased from its berth.

With a whoosh, the lamp oil within the barrels ignited, bursting the staves and spreading burning liquid over the wooden decks of the corsairs and the docks. The cries of alarm turned into shouts and screams as the crews of the corsairs sought to wake their comrades. Men rushed to bring up buckets in an attempt to quench the growing blaze, but it became quickly apparent that the conflagration would overwhelm both the ships and the docks. On nearby vessels, horns sounded and bells rang and soon there were a dozen and more ships underway in the harbor, seeking to evade the blaze. A fishing vessel ran its bow into the rigging of a trader, blocking several other ships' route of escape.

On shore, long lines of men assembled to pass buckets of water along in an attempt to confine the flames to the docks. While a nearby warehouse caught fire, the wind rose in the east, blowing both the flames and the smoke away from the city. When the sun rose hours later, the fires were under control, but the toll of the damage could be discerned. The corsairs and the docks were a total loss. Three other vessels had been badly damaged and longboats patrolled the harbor plucking men from the water. Two warehouses were now smoking ruins. A portion of the harbor was blocked by vessels that had collided and become entangled. But despite the chaos, few men other than portions of the crews of the corsairs and three guards who had been on the docks had suffered injury. By this time, the Lonely Star was well underway and was many miles north as it fled back towards Gondor...
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Old 04-21-2004, 11:44 AM   #175
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Aiwendil:

Aiwendil hastily snatched up his staff, sprinting towards the crack at the rear of the tent where Rôg had pushed his way to the outside just a minute before. The istar had slipped half-way through the opening when a large contingent of maenwaith surged forward, angrily shouting as they shoved him to the side. Several of these Men, carrying buckets of water, were racing forward to extinguish the flames. Others remained outside the tent, reinforcing the phalanx of armed guards who by now had completely surrounded Rôg.

Aiwendil found himself hurtling to the side and landed in the middle of a puddle of water barely inches away from where the fire had started. The force of the fall left him dazed and confused. The istar could feel a sharp object jabbing unmercifully in his back. Even in the confined space, he managed to wriggle it out from behind him and have a closer look. It was the incense pot that had started the fire. Aiwendil turned the object over, scratching his head in puzzlement, and then tucked it beneath the folds of his robe where no one could see it.

Those fighting the fire paid little attention to the befuddled old Man who seemed unable to sit up straight. Bucket after bucket of water was carried in and hurled onto the flames until the floor of the tent was a muddy morass. Narika and Ayar's tent had been destroyed as well as most of the things in it, but at least the fire had not spread to the rest of the encampment.

Shortly thereafter, two of the maenwaith stomped forward and yanked Aiwendil to his feet, half-dragging him to a canvas lean-to that had been hastily constructed beside a small cooking fire. The guard dumped him unceremoniously on the ground. To his enormous relief, Aiwendil saw that Rôg had already been conveyed to the same spot. He looked tired and disheveled but was definitely in one piece.

The Man backed away with suspicion in his eyes. "The Lady Narika wishes to speak with you," Then he sidled up to Rôg and muttered under his breath, "And if either of you harm her in any way, I will split your heads in two." With that, the guard clutched his sword menacingly and backed away as Narika stepped forward.

The young woman lost no time in making her displeasure known. Her initial words were sharp and with little warmth. "Part of me wishes that I could send you out in the desert with no food or water. We want no strangers here, especially ones that bring trouble in their wake." At this point she stared at Rôg and sighed, "But I will respect my mother's wishes. She apparently believes you were trying to help her. You will stay here under guard until I say otherwise."

Narika seemed ready to turn away, but then hesitated and glanced at Aiwendil, asking in a probing manner, "What did you do to her that she suddenly awoke? Is the sickness leaving her body?"

Aiwendil sadly shook his head, "Lady, I wish I could say so, but it is not to be. Your mother has been poisoned and there is no way that I can stop the drug from doing its deadly work. I merely used some remedies to push back the pain and let her speak with you. She will rest easy, but the end will not be far off. I truly wish I had other news."

Narika frowned, "You are not the first to say this to me. And I thank you that my mother now sleeps without pain. Still, I wonder if her awakening is for the best. I think she understands what is happening. That is a strange thing to say, but the wise ones of our people often sense when their time has come."

"I do not doubt it," Aiwendil nodded and bowed. "But those who have such wisdom often have the grace to deal with such things."

"Perhaps. In any case, before this is over," Narika continued, again staring at Rôg, "you may wish you had never come here. Battling the blaze has exhausted what little water we had. The hole itself has run dry, and yet I hesitate to move the clan when my mother is so ill. Sometimes, I think we should have let the fire burn itself out. Nothing is more precisous than water." She shrugged her shoulders and began to walk away, her mind absorbed by the dilemma of how to provide for so many people in the clan. Aiwendil stared after her but said nothing as an idea began slowly taking shape within his mind.

***************************************

"Rôg,.....psst.....Rôg," Aiwendil put his finger to his mouth and gave a quiet "shush", pointing to the guard who was lightly dozing. He pulled the pot out from under the voluminous folds of his robe and nodded, "I wanted you to look at this." The old Man inched closer to the fire, cradling the pot gengerly between his hands. "Incense pots like this always have a latched grate to prevent the cinders from falling out. I couldn't understand why this one didn't. It's probably nothing. But I wanted you to see it....."

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Old 04-22-2004, 06:21 AM   #176
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Korpúlfr

Korpúlfr watched the young maenwaith disappear into the shadows, before shaking his head and turning back to rejoin his guests. Tinar’s sudden and unexpected offer to follow the northerners had caught him of guard, allowing the rash young man to act before he had time to gather enough wit to stop him. Tinar had professed to being able to take care of himself, but Kor was not so sure! The boy did not know the city as he did; the dangers were many even for those who possessed their abilities. Not only were there thieves and cutthroats on every corner watching and waiting to pounce on the unwary and unsuspecting denizens of the city. But there were the scavengers, nocturnal animals that would emerge form dark places to scavenge for food and to whom other smaller creatures would present but a delicious treat. Also, he could not forget the wild dogs, vicious creatures that many of the less reputable inns and taverns kept in order to keep their even less reputable clientele in check.

Entering again the hall of tales he pushed his concerns temporarily aside, he had already resolved to have Hasrim go out and ensure that the boy did not run into trouble. Thankfully, another tale had begun allowing him to return to his seat with only a few members of his household staying his course and only long, enough to gain from him assurances that there was nothing to be concerned about. As he took his seat, he looked to his cousins, who both quietly moved to join him.

“Tinar is following the northerners!” he told them in a quiet whisper, looking at each in turn, as he spoke.

Asrim as usual wore a concerned but thoughtful expression, he knew that the more diplomatic man would be thinking further ahead and contemplating the repercussions should anything go wrong. However, Hasrim was another kettle of fish altogether, his deep scowl relied clearly his feeling on the matter, and it did not stop him from airing them verbally.

“The boy is a fool!” the warrior snapped trying hard to keep his voice to a low whisper, “he almost gave us away tonight, if not for you quick intervention, he would have unwittingly told that captain exactly what he wanted to hear.”

Korpulfr nodded his agreement with a slight frown lining his worried brow. The fault was not Tinar’s alone, he had underestimated the Captain and even as he thought back on Tinar’s mistake, he realised that the question had been carefully placed to catch them out. Thinking again on his own hasty reply he could not help but feel that the captain had gotten exactly what he had wanted.

“That may be the case…” he continued, pushing the thought aside. “What’s done is done. Should he succeed it would put him in good standing with his mother and in more of a position to be considered as her successor!”

“And if he fails, or worse goes and gets himself killed?” Hasrim retorted, his bearded face turning a deep shade of purple as his frustration increased. Korpulfr took no offence to the mans heated reply, he knew full well the warriors feelings regarding Wyrma’s youngest son, he saw the boy as an unnecessary liability and so far Tinar had done nothing to change that opinion.

“Wyrma will listen to no excuses if something untoward happens to her son!” Asrim added coming out of his silent contemplation, “she will hold you accountable, weather you are or not.” he warned.

“Then we will just have to insure that nothing untoward does happen, won‘t we” he replied solemnly. “Hasrim as you have so little faith in Tinar’s abilities you can go and keep an eye on him, ensure that he does not get into any trouble and that no trouble finds him, if you know what I mean.” Hasrim nodded knowing that he meant for him to keep the boys path clear of the more dangerous residents of Umbar.

“Only intervene if it becomes absolutely necessary to do so!” Korpulfr continued, “You never know he might surprise us.” Hasrim still not entirely please with the situation nodded his understanding and silently stole from the house in search of his quarry, while Korpulfr remained to carry out his duties as host and head of the wolf household in Umbar.

~*~*~

As the night steadily wore on, he remained distracted, his thoughts for a long while remained on Mithadan’s story of the shape changer, Bird and the effect her presence would have on the Maenwaith’s current situation. He knew that there were those among their kind who did not hold with Wyrma’s great plans. Treacherous Rebels his father called them, though he himself had seen no such treachery, but he had no cause to disbelieve his father’s words. And what if this bird character found these rebels? He thought to himself. Would she with her northern knowledge aid their rebellion? He quietly wondered if it were not best for them to locate this woman first. Asrim too was concerned with this stranger’s presence in their lands, for when the tales and songs had ended and his guest had all departed for home or retired to their rooms, he spoke to him of his concerns.

“What if the Captain lied about their friendship and she is no more than a valuable commodity that he has lost and is seeking to retrieve?” Korpulfr shook his head at his friends suspicions, “No, his concern seemed genuine if not a little guarded.” he replied thoughtfully guiding his cousin towards the study were they could talk more freely. For several hours, they debated this and many other concerns that had arisen from that nights proceeding.

Finally tired of talk that seemed to be getting them nowhere and growing more and more concerned that neither Tinar nor Hasrim had yet returned he turned to the widow reaching out to open the thick heavy drapes hoping to get a little air with which to clear his head. Pulling back the drapes he gasped, Asrim immediately joined him and together they both watched the thick dark smoke rising from the harbour below, both catching a fleeting glimpse of white sails before the dark blanket of smoke totally obscured their view.

It now seemed that at least the Northerners and their captain were no longer a concern.
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Old 04-22-2004, 08:15 AM   #177
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Ráma

Ráma sunk to the ground exhausted, frustrated at her seeming inability to reclaim her human shape. She slept fitfully for several hours, as uncomfortable memories surfaced in snatches of dream. She had glimpses of herself chasing after Narika, unable to catch up with her. Just at the point she managed to draw even, Thorn flew between the two sisters in the guise of an Eagle and sternly forbade Ráma to continue.

As children, she and Narika had been virtually inseparable. Yet, however similar they were in appearance, the girls' temperament and interests were markedly different even at this young age. And since their mother was clan leader, this dissimilarity was a matter of public note. Their personal attributes were the subject of frequent if private discussion among the elders, a situation that Ayar disliked but could do little to change.

Ráma had been the rash, impetuous child who rode through the desert like a storm and outran the boys in footraces. She was warm and spontaneous, bubbling over with gaity, a little butterfly who had trouble sitting still. Interested in everything that was not between the pages of a book, she talked with outsiders whenever she could, even though the elders had explicitly warned her not to do so. She did not openly scorn tradition, but was willing to question certain practices if these seemed to interfere with more important things. Her personal inclination was to deal with problems head on, and although she was far from belligerent, she was not afraid to fight.

It was not that the elders expected Ráma to sit home quietly embroidering tea napkins. No one in the clan felt that way. Both men and women could take on the shape of dangerous beasts, so it made little sense to pigeonhole girls or discourage them from leading an active life. If Ráma had been the eldest daughter in a lesser household, her prowess with weapons and her willingness to battle for what she believed would have earned praise and encouragement.

But she was not the eldest daughter of a lesser household: her position was more critical to the clan. Although clan governance was not hereditary, many a bright son or daughter stepped forward to become the next leader, either individually, or in tandem with a beloved spouse. Rama's impetuous nature, her tendency to strike back and ask questions later, even her willingness to deal with the outside world, made the elders nervous. For long years, the maenwaith had safeguarded their heritage by maintaining a fierce independence, using deception and deceit to trick enemies and then slinking off laughing into the shadows. Preserving the peace by trickery was deemed far more honorable than engaging in open warfare with its resulting loss of life.

Narika seemed to embody those traditions that stood at the core of the maenwaith heart. Grave and reflective, she had been a gentle child who loved lore and old tales and who could play the harp and sing with skill. Despite her introspective nature, she showed wisdom in the ways of the desert and could be physically tough. She brought out the best in all those around her. Wary of outsiders, and inordinately proud of her own people, she was unusually skilled as a shapeshifter, and thought things through very carefully before deciding on a particular path. She was, in effect, everything that the elders wanted. Able to shift into the form of an Eagle or a poisonous adder, Narika was an effective fighter, but one who never forgot that there were other ways, perhaps better ones, to safeguard her people. In that, she closely resembled her mother.

Ráma loved her sister fiercely but had made a separate life for herself as a trading agent and spy in the city of Umbar. But the increased tensions between the people of the desert and those of the city, along with the growing ambitions of Wyrma, seemed to be eroding the ground on which she stood. Ráma's inability to control her own form, and the recent news that Thorn intended to wed her sister, had placed her in a more uncomfortable position. All of these matters were simmering at the back of her mind, when a loud "whack" interrupted her sleep and she abruptly awoke. Looking out, she glimpsed one of the strangest sights that she had ever seen.....

***********************************************

The jaguar's eyes widened as she saw the great bird collide with the jagged roof of the cave and fall back to the ground with a thud. No longer tired or confused, Ráma instinctively leapt up and raced over to see what was happening. The single word that escaped from the Eagle's mouth provided the only clue that she would need. This was no simple beast, but one of her own people, most likely a maenwaith who was kin to the Eagles, since few outsiders could master such a form. And such a magnificent creature! The bird had dark brown plummage speckled with grey, stood nearly three feet high, and could boast a wingspan of more than seven feet.

But was she friend or foe? As a child, Ráma would never have raised such a sorry question when dealing with a fellow maenwaith, much less one who could claim some kinship with her own clan. But times had changed. There had always been enemies from the outside; it was the ones within that gave her pause. She could not overlook the possibility that this might be the mysterious stranger who had forced her to flee the Inn.

Ráma warily padded forward on velvet paws, genuinely curious about the stranger but still uncertain whether she could trust her. Still, if the great bird meant to attack, her behavior gave no indication of it. As luck would have it, she had tumbled down at the very back of the cave and could not leave without first confronting Ráma. Boxed into a corner, she stood as silent as a statue, glaring out at the jaguar. Only the gleem in her eyes betrayed the fact that she was very much alive. The Eagle's eyes were a deep brown flecked with gold. In their depths, Ráma could read wisdom, akin to that her mother and sister held, but also a deep sorrow born of some mystery that was beyond the young woman's understanding. The sadness and fear in those eyes finally tipped the balance, compelling Ráma to let down her guard.

"Please, I do not mean to hurt you. But who are you, and what are you doing here?" To her surprise, Ráma had regained control over her body. She quickly shifted back into human form and was rewarded with a slight softening of the hardness in the bird's eyes.

Ráma was never certain of the exact details of the conversation that followed. Either the bird was speaking in a foreign tongue, or did not fully understand what Ráma was saying, or perhaps some combination of both. The young woman could pick out words and phrases here and there, but many of the Eagle's words were simply impossible to decipher. Still, she did learn one or two things. The maenwaith's name was Sorona. She had come from miles away, and did not have a permanent home or clan, something that Ráma found very strange. In the middle of the discussion, Ráma caught hold of the word "North", another term that surprised her. As far as she knew, her people did not live or journey to the far northern lands, so this reference was extremely puzzling. Yet, whatever difficulties they'd had in communicating with each other, Ráma was convinced of two things. Sorona was indeed one of the mainwaith and she was not an evil creature, only one who seemed lost and sad.

As Sorona turned to made her way back to the entrance of the cave, Ráma bent down to offer her goodbyes, "I do not know if you can understand me, but very shortly I will leave these caves to journey to my clan. You are welcome to come along in any guise you choose. The sands are open and inviting; the mountains beckon just south of where my family camps. Many times, I've left Umbar with a heavy heart and found peace and friendship out in the desert. It is up to you, of course. But we would welcome your presence." The Eagle nodded in acknowledgment, slipped out of the cave, and flew off into the sky on her own.

Last edited by Child of the 7th Age; 04-28-2004 at 12:50 PM.
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Old 04-22-2004, 03:24 PM   #178
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"We are heading south again," hissed Mithadan. "We must go back."

Airefalas examined a narrow alley which led off to the right. It had an evil smell about it like the backyard to a slaughterhouse and somewhere in the darkness beyond their sight, he could hear snarling as though two dogs were fighting over leftovers. Overall, it did not look promising. He nodded to Mithadan, and the two of them turned and retraced their steps only to round a corner and find their way blocked by three burly Haradrim, each bearing in his hands a spear and a bottle. The bottles were, for the most part, empty.

The Gondorians stopped in their tracks.

“Well, well, well,” said the foremost of the Haradrim. He paused to take long drink from the bottle in his hand. Draining it, he tossed the bottle to one side where it shattered against the stone wall of one of the buildings that lined the narrow street. “What have we here?”

“Foreigners, I’d say,” said the man to the leader’s right. He grinned, exposing his two black teeth. “Prob’ly off’n that Gondorian ship ‘at‘s anchored down the harbor.”

“Got money,” said the third man. “Remember? Got some Gondorian coin offa some o’ them kitties the other day before their captain wouldn’t let ‘em go ashore no more.”

The Leader reached out and flicked Mithadan’s lapel with the point of his spear. “Are you Gondorian kitties?” He asked with an oily grin. Then his eyes hardened. “Give us your packs and your purses.”

Airefalas watched as Mithadan glanced down at the spear point resting against his chest, then shook his head.

“No,” said Mithadan calmly. “I’m afraid we can’t do that.”

“And why not?” asked the Leader, pressing down a little harder with his spear.

“Stick him!” urged Two Teeth from behind.

“We need our things.”

“Well, we need your things, too,” said the Third Man. “You!” he said, turning to Airefalas. “Give us your pack.”

Airefalas shook his head, mentally debating whether he would have time to draw his sword should the bandits attack or if he should look for another weapon. From the corner of his eye, Airefalas’ glance fell on a pile of wood and building materials stacked against the wall to his right. One piece was about the length of his sword and slightly more than two inches thick from the look of it. Airefalas’ eyes narrowed.

A pace ahead of him, Mithadan still argued with the Bandit Leader, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, as overhead the stars moved steadily in their courses across the heavens. Time was passing. Beyond the bandits, Airefalas could see that the way was clear but for a skinny brown dog that nosed around in the shadows near a closed storefront. If they could just get past these bozos, they might actually still make it back to the ship. Mithadan half drew his sword as the Bandit Leader pulled back his spear as though in preparation to strike.

“Stick ‘im! Stick ‘im!” chanted Two Teeth. The sniggering quality of the bandit’s voice grated on Airefalas’ nerves. He hated everything about Umbar so far and this snaggle-toothed idiot seemed to epitomize the entire Umbarian experience for him.

Abruptly, Airefalas patience snapped. “Mithadan! Look!” he barked in a tone of command that he had not used since losing the Amarantha. He pointed down the empty street. “Falasmir’s guards have followed us!”

The others, including Mithadan, all looked, the bandits snapping their heads around as though they half expected a platoon of guards to be standing behind them, swords drawn. Seizing the moment, Airefalas closed his hands around the piece of wood from the woodpile and swung it with all of his strength at the back of the Bandit Leader’s head. The club connected with the man’s skull with a loud whack!. The bandit fell to the earth like a sack of potatoes and didn’t move. Mithadan drew his sword. Holding his spear crossways across his body, Two Teeth charged Airefalas, driving him back against the stone wall. Airefalas saw stars as the back of his head hit the stones. For a few seconds, he grayed out, coming to with the shaft of the bandit’s spear pinning him against the wall and crushing his throat. Struggling to breathe, Airefalas dropped his club, and grabbed the bandit’s spear with both hands. At the same time, he drove violently upward with his knee, one, two, three times in rapid succession, each time connecting with the soft flesh under the bandit’s ribcage. The wind knocked out of him, Two Teeth fell back, gasping. Airefalas wrenched the spear from the bandit’s hands and struck him under the chin with the butt end, then, swinging it around, drove the point home.

Seeing that Mithadan had just slain the third man with his sword, Airefalas dropped to his knees, holding his throat and trying to regain his own breath.

“Are you all right?” asked Mithadan, leaning down beside him.

Airefalas nodded. “Good enough,” he answered hoarsely. Considering the crushing his larynx had just taken, it could be days before his voice returned to normal. Just a little unsteadily, he rose to his feet. “You?”

“Not bad,” said Mithadan, sheathing his sword. “But we have no time to lose.”

Nodding again, Airefalas followed as Mithadan turned and led the way back toward the fork where the roads split to the north and west. This time they took the more northern branch. They had only gone a short distance when the road took a sharp turn to the west. Mithadan stopped and pointed into the sky ahead of them.

“Look,” he said grimly.

Airefalas felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as he looked in the direction of the harbor. A red glow lit up the sky that had nothing to do with the sun or the arrival of dawn. Saelon had set fire to the docks.

“Do we still have time?” Airefalas asked his captain.

Mithadan shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“I guess there’s one way to find out,” Airefalas murmured. Looking up at the line of rooftops that bordered the narrow street, he took off his pack and unbuckled his sword. “I’ll go up and look.” Having spent nearly his entire life negotiating the riggings of sailing ships, Airefalas could climb like a spider monkey. If there was anyplace for his hands or feet to find purchase, he would be able to pull himself up. Looking around, he chose the easiest-looking climb and moving from doorframe to balcony on up, Airefalas soon stood atop the tiled roof. The house he had chosen had good elevation and, when he turned toward the harbor, Airefalas found he could see everything. With a growing sense of desolation, he called down to Mithadan.

“She’s sailed,” was all he said.

“Is she under pursuit?” Mithadan called back.

Airefalas shook his head. “Not yet. The corsairs at the dock are aflame, but the Star’s abroad and making for open water.”

Mithadan nodded and, with a gesture, summoned his first mate back down again. “Then, I guess we should make for the Cat’s Paw,” he said when Airefalas stood beside him again at street level. “And hope that Ráma is still waiting.”

Putting on his pack and buckling his sword back into place, Airefalas nodded without much enthusiasm. They were still lost, and, so far as he could tell, the street patterns of Umbar made all the sense of old cow paths. Finding the Cat’s Paw on their own would be a clever trick indeed. Even so, it was now their only option.

But this time, luck would be on the side of the Gondorians. Not knowing where else to go, they continued on in the direction they had already been traveling. The farther they went, the more narrow and shabby grew the lane until finally they rounded a gentle turn and stopped in disbelief. There before them, centered on the block of buildings, was a squat and ancient hostelry. Over its door, swung the faded sign of the inn of The Cat’s Paw. Quickening their steps, the two Gondorians made for the door, which they found locked. Mithadan knocked softly.

A few minutes later, they heard the sound of movement behind the closed door, then the soft voice of a woman. “Who is it?”

“Our names are Mithadan and Airefalas,” answered Mithadan. “We are friends of Ráma.”

“You are foreigners,” said the woman, in response to their strange-sounding names.

“Yes,” Mithadan replied. “We are from Gondor. Ráma told us that we might find her here.”

There was a shuffling and scraping as if furniture were being moved, then a key turned in the lock and the door cracked open. “Come inside quickly,” the woman said, stepping back for them to enter.

“Ráma told me you might be coming, but she was unable to wait for you here,” continued the woman once the two men stood before her just inside the small common room. “She left camels for you in the paddock, but you must go at once. It would not be good for you to be found here.”

Airefalas and Mithadan exchanged a troubled glance. Guessing their concern, the woman bit her lip nervously, then went on: “Ráma said that if you still need to meet with her, she will be waiting at the Caves of Herumor, a mile north of the city gates. She will wait there until just after dawn, but only until then.” She touched Mithadan’s arm. “She does even this at great peril to herself, sir. There are evil folk about.”

Mithadan nodded and thanked her warmly. “Then we will not tarry. Show us to the camels, mistress,” he said. “And we will be off at once.”

The innkeeper nodded and led them through to the exit in back that opened onto a small paddock. Inside the paddock sat two camels, both of them saddled and ready to go. She handed each of the two men a full skin of water from just inside the door and then she was gone, the inn’s back door closing and locking behind her. Just outside the gate to the paddock were two sticks the approximate size of riding crops. Mithadan picked them up and handed one to Airefalas. Not quite sure what they were for, Airefalas took what was offered and followed Mithadan into the tiny enclosure. Choosing one of the two camels for himself, Mithadan fastened his water skin to the camel’s saddle and, swinging a leg over the camel’s back, settled comfortably into place. He touched the animal’s shoulder once with the stick, and it lurched to its feet. Riding out of the gate of the paddock, Mithadan turned and looked back only to see Airefalas still standing there, staring at his camel with a look of deep distrust.

“You can ride, can’t you?” asked Mithadan.

Airefalas nodded, still staring at the camel. “I can ride a horse,” he answered crossly. What he didn’t mention to Mithadan was that while he could ride a horse, horsemanship was not one of his strong suits. Seeing as he had spent most of his time at sea, he had not had much opportunity to refine his skills. Camel-jockeying, he was afraid, might prove to be something else entirely.

Guessing Airefalas’ thoughts, Mithadan smiled. “Just pretend it’s a goofy-looking horse.”

As if in response, Airefalas’ camel made a noise that sounded something between a honk and a belch and spat a gooey, tobacco-like substance at Airefalas’ foot. Then it smirked and settled deeper on to its haunches, lowering its long eyelashes at him like a coquettish female. Frowning, Airefalas reached out and tied his water skin to the saddle, but made no move toward mounting.

Finally, Mithadan lost his patience. “Get on the camel,” he snapped. “Now.”

It was an order. Grudgingly, Airefalas cleaned his boot with a handful of straw and threw his leg over the camel’s back, sliding nervously into the saddle.

“You throw me,” he grumbled at the camel. “And I’ll skin you. Make myself a new pair of boots.”

The camel turned its head and gave him a sly look, but when Airefalas touched its shoulder with the riding stick, it rose obediently to its feet. Another touch with the stick and it trotted to where Mithadan waited astride the first camel. They started off at once for the caves. To his surprise, Airefalas found that Mithadan was right. Riding a camel really wasn’t all that different from riding a gangly, long-legged horse. The camels proved remarkably fast as well, delivering them to the Caves of Herumor just as the first fingers of dawn touched the eastern sky.

Following a trail of fresh hoof prints, which they assumed must belong to Ráma’s horse, the Gondorians dismounted under the over-hanging cliff that marked the opening to the complex of caves.
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Old 04-22-2004, 04:49 PM   #179
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Gondor

The patter of small bare feet down the stone floored hallway came to a sudden halt just outside her room; the soft slap-slaps giving way to hushed whisperings that curled round the cedar frame of the door. Pio pulled the quilt over her head, snuggling down inside the warm, dark cave of it. She was in that curious state between dream and waking; the place where a small effort of will might change the avenues of imagination, effect a more desirable ending.

What images she could capture were indistinct, obscured by darkness and the haze of fear. A ship . . . ships . . . and great blossoming fires. Small figures . . . some safe under the cover of night, some gone missing . . .

Her brow furrowed with unease, unable to move the passing phantoms into a clearer light . . .

Soft light . . . muted morning pushed its way through the loosely woven curtains to the side of her bed, falling warmly on her closed eyes. It drove away the last of the flitting dream, and wove itself pleasantly in with the sweet, sharp smell of cinnamon and sugar. One sticky finger tapped lightly on her cheek.

‘Are you sleeping, ammë?’

The wistful words proved the final breaking of the dream’s spell, one grey eye popping open to see Cami’s face near her own, a sanding of cinnamon and sugar about her lips. Someone had crawled under the covers at her back and now lay snuggled against her, back to back. Isilmir, it was, as Gilwen spooned in against her belly. With a groan of mock displeasure, Pio reached out an arm and drew in her youngest daughter, too; into the safe haven of the bed quilts.

‘Well, I guess I am truly awake now,’ she laughed, reaching back and forth to give them each a tickle.

‘Tell us about the party, then!’ coaxed Gilwen. ‘Did Baran really go with you?’ ‘Who was there? And what did the King look like?’ asked Isilmir, imagining the great sword hung at his belt. Questions and more questions followed, one upon the other. Pio’s own opinions of the party dropped away as she viewed the party through her children’s eyes. Magic wove through her narrative . . . candles in crystal holders . . . glinting off the shiny baubles worn by the party goers. Rich colored banners hung from the hall’s wooden beams, twined with shiny ribbons. The women were graceful, their dresses lovely; the men all tall and handsome in their finery. There was music and dancing and sweets piled high on silvered platters. It was a more enchanted scene, she knew, than what had really been . . .

Cook had come to stand in the doorway. She listened quietly to the story, a smile on her face. At a pause in the narrative, she rapped gently on the door frame. ‘Breakfast,’ she said, ‘if anyone’s interested.’ ‘Or still hungry!’ she laughed, as Cami bounced off the bed and went running for the kitchen a few steps ahead of her brother and sister. Pio drew on her robe and stood at the side of the bed for a moment, watching Cook follow after the trio.

Silence settled round the room once again. And from the corners the shadows seemed to grow darker. Pio shivered, drawing the robe closer about her. Remnants of the dream still lingered, niggling at the edges of her mind. A piping voice at her side once more dispelled the murky thoughts.

‘Hurry, amme,’ urged Isilmir, slipping his hand into hers. ‘Cook’s made griddlecakes and opened her last pot of strawberry jam to put on them.’ He pulled her quickly down the hall. ‘Come on! Or we won’t get any!’

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Old 04-22-2004, 05:10 PM   #180
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The dog panted for breath; keeping up with camels was no easy business, especially since he had to take care to keep cover. Tinar was glad that the Gondorians had slowed down and appeared to be looking for something – or someone? – in the caves that became visible in the early morning light. Would they travel on, he wondered? Why had they chosen to come here instead of going to their ship? Obviously, something had happened, and he was determined to find out what they planned to do, even if that meant following them into the desert. But he could not keep up with them if they travelled far at this pace. His sparrow form would not give him enough speed for a long distance; could he find a new form for this new task?

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

Wyrma repressed an aggravated sigh as she listened to Nizar slowly deliver his message. Why she had chosen to use those two bumbling brothers was a mystery to her; it had seemed like a good idea at the time to choose the most unlikely candidates, but it taxed her patience no end to deal with them. She regretted that Kumat had already flown back to their city; she was worried about Tinar and would have liked to have someone reliable following him to bring him back. Well, she would have to hope that Mu’sad kept on his trail.

Slowly and clearly she instructed Nizar. “I want the two of you not only to follow Tinar, but to bring him back to me here at the palace!”

“But how will we know what form he has taken?” the man asked, shaking his head in confusion.

“You mean you did not see his transformation?” Wyrma’s voice was menacing and cold. “Well then, go back to your brother and tell him to follow the Northerners and look for a dog following them – I would think that he has taken that form.”

“Bring back the dog,” Nizar repeated obediently.

“And hurry!” Wyrma exclaimed. “While you tarry here, they could be gone out of reach!”
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Old 04-22-2004, 09:50 PM   #181
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Mus'ad and Nizar

By the time Nizar had made it to the vendors’ market his brother had already found Tinar. He had been keeping an eye on him from the tops of buildings that stood along the young man’s route. The young fool was loping after the two foreigners . . . in dog shape; they were wandering aimlessly, or so it appeared to Mus’ad. ‘How obvious!’ he’d snorted to himself, but then the two fellows Tinar was following had not seemed to notice their tail. The dingy blue-grey pigeon chortled in an unattractive way at this poor excuse for a joke, then followed it up with the thought that perhaps foreigners were as dumb as he had heard.

On his third flight back to the spiced-scorpion seller’s stall, his wings growing a bit tired, patience wearing thin, he’d finally spotted Nizar winging his way toward the booth. Sitting together on the large carved sign above the establishment, Mus’ad attempted to elicit from his brother what Wyrma’s instructions had been.

‘Let’s see,’ cooed Nizar as he bobbed his head at his brother. A blank expression crossed his feathered face for a moment, followed by panic. He’d tried so hard to remember the instructions, but it was dark and he couldn’t concentrate on both remembering what Wyrma had said and finding his way in the dark. In an effort to buy himself a little time to remember Herself’s exact words, he began preening his wing feathers, checking for fleas. Mus’ad gave an exasperated hop toward his brother and pecked him lightly on the top of his head.

‘Well?!’ Mus’ad urged. ‘What exactly are we to do?’

Nizar fluffed out his feathers and shook himself as if to knock loose the Mistress’ instructions. Hunkering down, he concentrated hard. ‘There were three things,’ he said, brightening. ‘Follow him. Don’t lose sight of him . . .’

Mus’ad looked expectantly at his brother, and clacked his beak in irritation. Nizar fidgeted on the wooden edge of the sign. His mind had gone quite blank. Below them, a hungry mongrel slinked along in the shadows. ‘That’s it! Follow him. Don’t lose sight of him. And look for his dog shape.’ He bobbed his head in satisfaction. ‘Yep! That’s it. That’s what we’re supposed to do!’ ‘Herself’s very words!’ he pronounced with certainty. In a few moments they were both winging their way back to the area Tinar had last been seen in.

‘I wonder what he’s left out?’ mused the lead bird . . .

~*~*~*~

They’d missed the fight between the foreigners and the drunken alley rats. And could barely resist the urge to have a look see at the fiery goings-on at the harbor. Mus’ad grew a little panicked at the sight of the burning vessels in the harbor and the confusion on the docks. Surely Tinar, foolish as he acted at time, was not involved in that mess! Wrapped up in his thoughts he almost missed it as his brother went flapping by him, nearly slapping him with his wings in his haste to circle about him and head in the opposite direction. ‘There’s those foreigners!’ Nizar said, dipping one wing tip at the street below. ‘And there’s the pup!’ cried Mus’ad, altering the direction of his flight. ‘Good eye, Stinkbug!’

Despite the hated nickname, Nizar’s chest puffed up with pride at the compliment that accompanied it.

~*~*~*~

The dog had fallen far behind the two camels. Which was just as well, thought Mus’ad, since day was coming and the dark of night would no longer hide the trailing cur. Both the birds were tired, their only advantage that they could fly high enough to see far ahead and keep their quarry in sight. The camels the foreigners rode were small figures far in front of the footsore Tinar. The pigeons could see where they had stopped on the rocky rim in the distance, the one that led down to the honeycomb of caves below it.

Tinar had now approached closer to where the two men were dismounting. His belly low to the ground, the birds watched as he crept up a small rise and peered at his prey. The foreigners spoke for a few moments then urged their mounts down the narrow path to the entrance of the caves. As soon as their heads had disappeared from sight, the dog went slinking behind a small rocky outcropping near the ledge. Blending his slender form into the shadows of the piled rocks, he padded silently along to a position where he could watch some of the area below the ledge.

The two birds sat huffing and puffing on the limb of a scraggly sand-whipped tree. ‘Oh, Mus’ad, he’s not going down into the caves, is he?’ The little dun colored pigeon huddled against his older brother. ‘If he does, you stay here and keep lookout,’ whispered Mus’ad. ‘I’ll go down . . . be easier for me to do it . . . you just keep lookout . . .’

The birds looked back to where the dog crouched, as still as the rocks about him. ‘Maybe we’ll be lucky,’ whispered Nizar, distracted by some bug as it crept along a nearby branch. ‘No such luck,’ muttered Mus’ad, lifting his beak in the direction of the dog. In its place was now a small sparrow.

With a fluttering of wings the sparrow dropped below the ledge . . . and with a sigh, the blue grey pigeon followed - landing on the edge of the rocky ledge. Now a small lizard, he slithered nimbly down the face of the overhanging ridge, senses alert for . . . whoever . . . whatever . . . was below . . .

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Old 04-25-2004, 02:33 PM   #182
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Rôg

Out of the cooking pan, into the fire . . .

That old saw kept running through Rôg’s mind as he stared at the hissing embers of the small fire just beyond their little lean-to.

Lean-to! Hmmmmph! Prison, I should rather say!

Huddled against the back of the small enclosure, he screwed up his courage and inched forward, taking a peek at the guard stationed to the side of them. Narayad! The one who had wanted to kill him! The fellow was dozing, muttering something under his breath as his chin nodded near his chest. ‘I’m warning you . . .’ he snorted in his dream. Rôg leaned closer to hear the ending to the threat, and ducked back just as quickly, his heart pounding. The man slept with his eyes only half closed, lids twitching; the fire’s light glinting off his unseeing orbs. It was a sight to send shivers down the young man’s spine, and he made the old sign to ward off the evil eye.

‘Rôg,.....psst.....Rôg!’ With a slender finger to his lips, Aiwendil gave a ‘shhh!’ as his companion turned toward him. Nodding his chin toward the dozing guard, the old man fumbled in the folds of his robe and brought out an incense pot.

‘Fur and Feathers!’ thought Rôg. ‘He’ll have us pegged as thieves now!’ He grabbed his right wrist, already feeling the quick slice from the clansman’s blade which would strike off his offending, thieving hand. He could feel the fiery pain already as the bloody stump was plunged against the pan of hot coals to stanch the bleeding . . .

‘I wanted you to look at this,’ the old fellow went on, inching closer to the fire.

Rôg pulled his thoughts away from their depressing downward spiral to watch as Aiwendil turned the pot carefully in his hands. He drew Rôg’s attention to the clasp on the grate within. Curious now, the younger man took the pot and examined the grate and its latch closely. How strange!’ he murmured as he lifted the hinged grate up from the bottom half of the container. Turning the pot over, he inspected the maker’s markings on the bottom – a crossed tong and hammer with two vertical slash marks beneath them. Moving closer to Aiwendil, he spoke low, saying his father’s younger brother, a metals’ worker as were all the males in that family, had made this pot. ‘I have seen these particular pots made,’ Rôg went on. ‘They are a common design of his; well built; made to withstand the constant packings and movings on of the desert peoples. And all of them have a sturdy clasp . . . right here,’ he said running the tip of his finger along the front rim of the pot. He took Aiwendil’s finger and ran it over the smoothed edges of the grate and the rim against which it should have been tightly secured. They were both a little rough where the clasp and its latch point had been forced off then poorly filed.

‘This didn’t break of itself,’ Rôg said, placing the pot on the ground between them. ‘And someone would have noticed almost immediately that there was a problem when new incense was put in and the old ashes cleaned out.’ He raised his brows at Aiwendil. ‘Unless, of course, the last one to do so was very lazy and unobservant . . .’

‘Or unless the last one to fill the pot and light it was the one who removed the clasp . . .’ finished the old man.

‘A snake in the nest . . . you think?’ murmured Rôg. ‘But who will believe us here if we tell them?’

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Old 04-26-2004, 04:34 PM   #183
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Kalir stood uneasily before the doors of Falasmir's chambers. Members of the Guard had rushed up to the palace even before dawn to report on the fire at the docks. But Kalir had elected to wait before awakening his Lord with the terrible news. Instead he first visited the chambers where the Gondorian Captain and his first mate had been housed. His unease, which had blossomed at the report of the fire, grew as he discovered that none of the guards were at their post and settled into a cold fear in the pit of his stomach when he found that their "guests" were not in their chambers.

He located a captain of the Guard and ordered him to find Mithadan, Airefalas and their guards...any or all of them. Then he received more news from the docks, little of it good. The two great corsairs had been destroyed in the fire and many members of their crew lost. The blaze had turned a portion of the docks into smoking debris and had also damaged or destroyed two warehouses. The northern portion of the harbor was nearly impassable due to ships which had run afoul of one another in their haste to escape. The good news was that the fire had been confined to the docks and had not entered the city itself. However, the worst news of all was that the northerners' ship was gone. Some said that it had fled the blaze, but Kalir noted that it had not returned or anchored in safe waters.

So now Kalir stood outside his master's doors, the bearer of ill-tidings. With a shaking hand, he knocked on the door. There was no response. He knocked again, then slowly opened the door. Falasmir was stretched out upon his bed with one of his wives...the new one... where he was snoring loudly. Kalir approached carefully, then reached out to tap his Lord's shoulder. "My Lord..." he whispered. Then he tapped again.

Falasmir spluttered and rolled over, seizing a curved knife from under his pillow as he stood and turned to face Kalir. Then he straightened slowly with a frown on his face. "What," he shouted. "Is so important that you could not wait for me to arise on my own, fool!" The shout woke Falasmir's young wife, who drew the sheets up about her and rushed off to a dressing room with a fearful glance at her husband.

"I bear ill news my Lord," stammered Kalir. He spoke quickly, telling Falasmir of the fire, the damage done and the departure of the Lonely Star, apparently with its captain and first mate. The Lord of Umbar's face turned white, then darkened until it was red as a beet. "Treason!" he screamed. "Treachery and piracy! Have every corsair capable of getting underway take sail and find the Gondorians! Send our ships west and south as well as north. I want prisoners! I want to slay Mithadan myself!"

Kalir bowed and beat a hasty retreat, relieved in part that Falasmir had not slain him in his fury. Within an hour, five corsairs had set sail with full complements of slaves working their oars...
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Old 04-27-2004, 06:33 AM   #184
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Korpúlfr

A thunderous knock abruptly woke The young Maenwaith Merchant from his sleep and he was dismayed to see that he had yet again fallen asleep at his desk, “Hmm two nights in a row!” he wearily sighed, gently rolling his neck and rubbing at his shoulder muscles in an attempt to work out the stiffness he now felt. Again came the knock, louder and with much more urgency attached to it. “Come” he called, still rubbing at his stiff muscles.

“Ah, Hasrim” he started but seeing the grim seriousness reflected in his cousin‘s eyes he stopped, letting his hand slowly drop from his neck.

“What’s happened?” he asked gesturing for the older man to take a seat, Hasrim refused with shake of his head, “There is not time, you must listen.” Frowning Korpulfr nodded and gestured for him to continue.

“Not knowing what form Tinar would assume to follow our guests, I choose to follow instead the trail of the Gondorians and their escorts, knowing that if I followed them I would eventually find the boy,” Hasrim quickly explained. Korpulfr nodded seeing the logic in his cousin’s choice and continued to listen as his older cousin went on.

“It seems that after leaving here they took a walk to the Bazaar, where they seemingly gave their inebriated guards the slip. Their trail then became lost in the crowd but I managed to picked it up again heading north, I assume thinking they would reach the docks. However, they took the wrong turning and ended up travelling south. This is were I picked up another trail the paw marks of a dog defiantly following those of our guests, “ Hasrim Paused, looking up at him for confirmation that the paw prints would have been those of young Tinar. Korpulfr nodded thoughtfully, “Yes, Tinar does from time to time take the form of a sandy coloured mongrel.”

Confirmation received Hasrim continued, “Here they ran into a little trouble, Bandits most likely, but they seemingly had no problem in dispatching all three, before moving on back the way they had come. It was then that I saw the smoke rising from the direction of the docks.” Again Korpulfr nodded his head, “Yes we too saw the smoke and witnessed the escape of the Gondorian ship, but if what you say is true then the captain and his first mate where not aboard.”

“No they're not!” Hasrim continued darkly, “I continued to follow their trail, back towards the market, to an inn… the Cats Paw, were it seems they acquired some camels and headed out of the city towards the caves just north of here.”

“And Tinar?” Korpulfr prompted.

“I lost his trail, he must have shifted to another form,” his cousin replied shaking his head regretfully. “I search for over an hour but to no avail. With the dawn fast approaching, I decided to return, knowing that with the fire at the docks Falasmir would send his men here and that any sudden absence would be looked upon with suspicion.”

“You did the right thing cousin,” Korpulfr assured. “However I do not believe that Tinar’s foolhardiness will sit well with his mother and as he was our guest some of her irritation will undoubtedly fall on us. Hasrim solemnly nodded his head in silent agreement.

“I do not know what the boy could have been thinking going off into the desert without so much as a by or leave and with no food or water how far does he expect to get!” Hasrim snapped irritably.

“If the Gondorians have any sense they will make for the Harad road and leave these lands as quickly as possible and with any luck Tinar will see this and return immediately.” Korpulfr reasoned, but Hasrim did not agree, “Their tracks indicated that they were searching for something or someone!” he said shaking his head ruefully.

“Damn!” Korpulfr snorted, his patience finally spent; he slammed his hands down heavily upon his desk. “Then I will have to go to the palace and inform Wyrma personally of this recent development, and hope that I catch her in a decidedly better frame of mood than I currently find myself.” he said, looking up from his desk where he was carefully contemplated his next move.

Before his cousin could offer an opinion on the matter the door to his office burst open admitting a large burly dark skinned man wearing the livery of Lord Falasmir‘s personal Guards and behind him were several others, he watched as the decidedly smaller figure of Asrim irritably pushed his way past the larger men.

“I tried to stop them,” he offered apologetically, “But they were most insistent!” he continued looking frostily at the lead guard, who was obviously their captain and who he had just noticed was standing with his sword in hand.

“We are here by orders of Lord Falasmir!” the Captain put in authoritatively.

Korpulfr shook his head as if not understanding and the captain continued, “Lord Falasmir would like to have a word with you concerning your dinner guests of the previous evening.”

“The Gondorians?” Korpulfr asked still seeming confused. But the captain simply nodded offering no more on the matter and stood waiting for him to conceded to his Lords request.

“What is this about?” Korpulfr prompted.

“You mean you have not heard?” the Captain replied his eyes narrowing, watching him suspiciously.

“Know what?” he asked impatiently, looking to Asrim who he knew would play along.

“Again I must apologise cousin I was just coming to tell you about the attack on the docks when these gentlemen arrived,” he replied giving the captain another condescending look.

“Attacked! But by who… oh, wait a minute you don’t think that…. Oh, no they seemed so friendly and forth coming regarding our trading propositions.” Korpulfr finished feigning disappointment.

“We don’t think, we know!” The Captain scowled darkly, obliviously annoyed that he seemed more concerned about losing a profitable business deal than the destruction and loss of life at the docks.

“Oh, this is terrible, I will off course help in anyway that I can!” he offered.

The captain nodded obviously satisfied with this reply, “Then you will not mind if a few of my men remain to question your household !” he said as Korpulfr reached for his jacket, his tone of voice implying that it was not a question but rather a statement of fact. Korpulfr nodded accordingly, eyeing the captain suspiciously, “I do hope you are not implying that any of my people had any thing to do with the Gondorians unprovoked attack on the city, I assure you that when they left they were in the capable hands of several of your own guards!”

“Off course not!” the large man hissed though gritted teeth, “It is purely a procedure as you and your people were the last to see these traitors before their utterly unprovoked attack!” the captain barked utterly incensed by Korpulfr's reminder of his mens failure.

Korpulfr nodded accepting the captains assurances, “Then be my guest, neither myself or any of my household have anything to hide,” he said putting on his jacket and then turning to Hasrim he told him to make sure that everyone gave their full cooperation to the captains men. But his eyes gave a warning that every Maenwaith knew well, one that told the beholder to remain cautious.

Turning Korpulfr confidently left the room allowing Falasmir’s captain to escort him to the palace through the smoky haze that seemed to blanketed the city in the aftermath of the Gondorians attack.

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Old 04-28-2004, 03:58 PM   #185
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It was late morning before Falasmir knocked upon the door of Wyrma's chambers. One of her guards opened the door and nodded as he allowed Falasmir to enter. The burly guard led Falasmir to a sitting room where he gestured to a chair as he turned to summon his mistress. Falasmir waited with ill-concealed impatience for Wyrma to appear. To his annoyance, it seemed that she took her own time before the door to her rooms opened and she entered, followed by two guards. Falasmir shot to his feet and began to speak as she approached him.

"The Gondorians..." he began.

She interrupted him with a wave. "I have heard," she said. "I warned you against this game that you played."

"We must catch them," he continued.

"So?" she replied. "I assume that you have sent out your ships?"

"Yes," he answered. "But we would apprehend the criminals much faster if we knew precisely where they were. Perhaps your people could help? Locate them, I mean?"

Wyrma's eyes narrowed. "My people are my concern," she said in a low voice. "I would not have them reveal themselves now. It is too early. But this is a moot point. There are none here in Umbar who can take the form of a bird great enough to fly so far."

"But you..." Falasmir began.

"Me?" Wyrma retorted with a laugh. "If I would not have any of my people reveal themselves in the shape of a bird, what makes you think that I would reveal myself? Think of how your people would panic! No, you will have to catch them by sea or not at all."

"But they return to Gondor!" he hissed.

"So?" she replied. "It will take them seven days or more to travel that distance. By that time all will have been done! You worry too much, Falasmir, my dear. And you should have more confidence in your mighty corsairs!"

He nodded, but her scorn burned his ears...

---------------------------

One corsair went south against the possibility that the Lonely Star would seek to evade them and hide in some quiet cove. The second went west. The third set out to the north-west and the remaining two made for the north, one travelling just off-shore and the second a mile further out to sea. The black sails billowed and the drums beat rapidly marking time for the oarsmen below. Even so, two days past and no sign of the Gondorian vessel was seen.

It was late in the afternoon of the third day when a man in the crowsnest of the Southern Storm caught sight of a distant sail, far to the north. Through a dark night, the Southern Storm and its sister ship, the Black Wind, sped over the waves. In the morning of the fourth day, the sail was closer and my early afternoon the corsairs had closed enough to see that it was indeed the Lonely Star. Still, it was late in the day before the Southrons drew close. The men of the Lonely Star appeared to be working feverishly with something on its stern.

The Black Wind drew within bowshot of the northerners and its men, armed and ready, arrayed themselves upon her deck. The drums beat a rapid tempo as the slaves below strained to bring their ship closer to their quarry. Aboard the Lonely Star, several sailors heaved something overboard from the stern of the vessel. The captain of the Black Wind laughed. Many were the occasions where he had seen his prey dump its cargo in the vain hope that lightening the load might allow it to escape. His laugh was cut short as a jolt shook the ship and it began to veer off to the side.

"What has happened?' he cried as the distance between the Black Wind and the Southern Star began to grow rapidly. His first mate rushed to the side of the ship and then to the stern, before reporting back to the captain. "Sir, the oars and the rudder are fouled," he answered.

"By what?" snarled the captain.

"A drift net," answered the mate nervously. "Its mesh and hooks have tangled the oars on the port side and fouled the rudder."

"Well fix it!" shouted the captain. But that was a task which was easier said than done. It was several hours before the oars and rudder could be cleared.

The Southern Storm passed its sister ship and closed rapidly upon the Star. This time, no net was thrown from the Star into the sea, or if one was, the Storm passed it by safely. It was nearly dusk when she pulled aside the Lonely Star and her men crowded the rail in preparation for boarding. But as the Storm edged closer, men from the Star threw lines with great hooks up into the Storm's rigging. Even as the Storm's rail came alongside that of the Star, the Gondorians began pulling on the lines they had thrown into the raider's rigging and with pulleys drew a second great net off the deck which swung over towards the corsair.

"Veer off!" cried the Sothron captain. But this was exactly what Saelon wanted. The net fell and draped itself over the starboard side of the corsair and fouled the oars of that vessel as well. The captain cursed, then laughed. "We'll be free soon enough and then we'll get them," he cried. But his mate tapped him on the shoulder and pointed as his eyes grew wide. "She's coming about, sir!"

The Star had swung around and was now charging towards the Southern Storm. It passed by on the Storm's port and a volley of arrows flew towards the corsair. But the captain was more alarmed at another sight. As the Star moved close to the Storm, the Gondorians lifted two great kegs from the deck and heaved them over the side. Each leaked a foul smelling liquid which floated upon the surface of the sea and quickly enveloped the side of the corsair. As the Star swept clear, bowmen launched flaming arrows into the slick of liquid. It caught fire, scorching the side of the Storm. Then the flames reached the barrels which erupted in great gouts of fire, sending a shower of burning oil onto the deck of the corsair.

As the Lonely Star again turned north, Saelon loked back at the corsair. It was listing to the port from damage caused by the explosions and its men were frantically fighting the flames which threatened to engulf that ship. The Star sailed on, and did not encounter any other ships of Umbar before it reached the city of Minas Anor nearly five days later.
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Old 04-28-2004, 05:45 PM   #186
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Gondor

A few days later found Pio down at the docks. She passed from ship to ship, greeting the captains, asking for news of what was passing at the ports they had put into on their latest travels. Good tidings for the most part, save for the storms and squalls that bedevil any ship which has to brave them. But at the last ship, The Scuppered Gull, the news she heard from Faragaer disturbed her. There was nothing specific in the detail, just the feeling he had gotten from the small luggers that worked the Southern coast.

The main port in Umbar had a guarded feeling they felt, relations uneasy between the Corsairs and others not of Umbar. Going on these reports, Faragaer told her he had elected to land at a small cove farther south of the main city. A less used place, he told her, near where the mountains come down close to the sea. ‘The old tars used it in the times long before the new King and his Peace.’ He pulled out his book of charts and showed her the position. Something familiar niggled at the back of her mind as she looked at it. The old, captain’s log she’d borrowed from the library. The Sandpiper, that had been the name of the ship. She would have to read more closely what the captain had said about the southern coast in earlier days.

Pio asked after Radagast and his companion, and was told they had gotten off safely at the cove, and were moving north toward the city with a small caravan of merchants who had come out to trade with Faragaer. Faragaer laughed, thinking of Rôg and his unfortunate stomach, and related several amusing stories concerning him to the Elf. Wine was offered round by the First Mate and talk fell to personal topics. Yes, Pio’s children were fine and she was sure they would love the chance to sail down to the bay on one of the shorter trips that Faragaer made along the little trading docks on the river. Faragaer’s own wife was expecting her second baby, and Pio accepted the invitation to pay her a visit while the Captain was away. The focus was then turned on Haladan, the First Mate. The tips of his ears crimsoned with their good-natured ribbing. Had he announced his intentions yet to that girl’s father? Lyssa, wasn’t that her name? And when would they be receiving their invitations to the handfasting? Haladan bore it with good will. Politely telling them his business was his own, if they pleased. He ended his request with a wink, and Pio and the captain fell to laughing at this unspoken comment.

It was late in the afternoon when Pio returned home. The children under the care of cook for the day came running out to greet her as she rode up through the gate. They milled about her, their little voices vying for her attention, their eager fingers slipping into her pack for the promised treats.

‘Any news of Mister Mithadan,’ said cook, shooing the children off to suck on their honey and violet candies. ‘Not yet,’ returned Pio, shaking her head. ‘An old friend once said that no news was good news, and I am hoping that holds true for this.’ Rubbing the back of her neck, she thought of the rumours she’d heard from Faragaer; then, reminded herself that the Star would be home in a short span of days.

‘Something smells good!’ she said, changing the subject. ‘Yes, we’ve been busy,’ cook said, laughing at the mouthed ‘we?’ from Pio. ‘The children picked through the lentils and cleaned them. Isilmir and Gilwen gathered the vegetables from the garden to stew with them. And Cami, with her sweet tooth, helped me roll out the pastry for an apple pie.’ Cook nodded her chin at the littlest girl, who had obviously finished her few pieces of candy, and was looking quite hopefully at her brother, a person of greater restraint than she. Pio laughed and looping her arm loosely about cook’s shoulders led the way into the house . . .

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Old 04-29-2004, 04:49 PM   #187
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Thorn

Standing on the warm wet sand, as the first light of dawn touched the sky, Thorn shuddered in its bleak light. Around him lay the smoldering ashes of his leader’s tent, which had been lost as Ayar's watched silently from the blanket Latah had spread out for her a safe distance away. Even now she was still focused, her dark eyes reflecting the flames as she watched Surinen take off his shawl and beat a small blaze that had rekindled in the ruin. Once extinguishing it, the outrider threw mud over the stubborn embers, padding softly through the wreckage, hunting for others that threatened.

Calling her daughter to her side, Ayar spoke to her quietly, before closing her eyes and rolling onto her back. Immediately Narika arose, and crossing over to the blackened sand, she approached Thorn touching his elbow to gain his attention. "What is it?" Thorn asked in a whisper, seeing now Ayar laying with her eyes tightly shut. He wondered if she might be growing worse once more.

"My mother requests that we find our shelter in the tent of your family, Thorn,” she said distractedly, as though something of greater weight was troubling her. “She has sent me to tell you this."

"My own mother would welcome you gladly, but you had said that Yalisha is now in the encampment,” Thorn ventured, searching her face. “Would you truly rest easy with this?"

"It is my mother's wish, and she must be moved before the sun further weakens her," Narika replied. “But that is not all. My mother said that the one Surinen calls Rôg spoke to her in our own language."

Thorn pondered the revelation. How was it that this stranger could know such a thing? “This is most unexpected. But they will be all right for now. I have set Narayad guard over them."

"Some may not see that as a good choice I am afraid, even though these men apparently bear us no ill will,” said under her breath.

"Because he is not born of our clan?” Thorn said with an exasperated laugh. “Do not worry; he has a stout heart and strict disposition. What better way to prove his fidelity, then to keep watch over this doddering man and his companion? He is to be trusted, more than our own, for he is a member of the Eagle clan by his own choosing, not by the random chance of birth."

“Yes I know, but there are many others who would not agree with that view.”

Thorn knew that she was referring to the elders, some of who saw Narayad as a potential liability. But the respected elder, Fador, had surprisingly taken up this maenwaith drifter’s cause and had even given his blessing upon the outrider’s union with his only daughter Latah, further cementing his place in the clan, and the young man enjoyed his protection, to the chagrin of the majority of elders. “Well, after this many years you would think they would recognize good character when they see it,” he spat out.

Walking toward a group of young men, who stood by the water tank lamenting its level, Narika followed him. “We can not discount their opinions either, Thorn,” she said as she hurried along side.

“No we can not,” Thorn conceded. “But how would you have him be useful to the clan? By watching the flocks like a small child? And would Fador agree to that? I do not think so.”

“Then do you think that the elders are wrong to be cautious?” She asked candidly. Thorn stopped, turning to face her in the first warm blush of sunrise.

“No I do not think they are wrong in their wariness, only in their prejudice. Not all in a clan have a single mind and single will. True Narayad rebelled against his leader’s wish, but with good cause and in agreement with the ways of this people! Perhaps the elders fear the strength of his convictions!”

With that Thorn left Narika to join the young men, asking their help to transport Ayar to his family’s tent. And despite his initial reaction to her frank question, he found that he was asking himself, what if he was wrong? Had not the elders more wisdom than he? And so he decided to send Surinen also to the lean-to, for the bread baker’s son understood many tongues, indeed more than he could speak, and he would be an acceptable guard in the eyes of the elders.
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Old 05-04-2004, 08:41 AM   #188
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Baran had enjoyed the reception immensely. The food had been very tasty and the wine very fine. He was also very impressed by Elessar, the King of Gondor. The King was well-spoken and had been familiar with the lands about the Carrock, allowing them to discuss his people from a base of common knowledge. The cheiftains of the Beornings would be pleased at the offers of trade which he had received as well. However, as it seemed that it would be some time before he returned to the north, he had suggested that Gondor dispatch an emissary to the Carrock to discuss these economic matters. Elessar had promised to send a representative to the Beornings when traders next travelled to Dale. "A fine man," thought Baran as he ambled back to the buffet tables. "And a fair ruler."

That had been a few days before. Now, it was late in the evening and he had spent many frustrating and tiring hours in the Library of Minas Anor that day, meandering through dusty trade records and the logs of vessels which had travelled to the south. These last were few in number and, by and large, many years old. It appeared that Gondor had not gotten along with its neighbors to the south for some time. Not surprising, considering the accounts of piracy by the corsairs of Umbar which he had come across.

He stretched and yawned mightily. The dim and close quarters of the library did not appeal to him. It was quite unlike the bright and airy chambers which held the records of Rivendell. As he rose, his stomach grumbled in annoyance. It was time to return to the Inn for a late dinner. Nodding to the librarian, who barely looked up as he passed, Baran made his way to the doors and the fresher air outside.

The library was located in the upper levels of the city, not far from the great hall where the reception had been held. Looking up, he saw a number of windows above him from which the flickering light of lanterns or candles could be seen. Even as he looked, one of the lights was snuffed as someone prepared for sleep. No doubt the quarters of the King and his family were among the rooms up above. He wondered briefly if the King was still awake before he continued on his way.

There were few people out and about in this level of the city. But as he reached the gate which led to the next circle down, two men walked past. They were cloaked and hooded in grey cloth and did not look at him as they walked by, intent upon some errand in the levels above. But as they passed, Baran paused and sniffed at the air. Some scent had reached his nose which, even in mannish form, was more sensitive than most. The odor niggled at him, familiar in some ways, yet at the same time strange and different. He glanced back at the two men. They did not turn and were soon lost to his sight, hidden by shadows. Baran shrugged and continued the long walk back to the Inn...
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Old 05-04-2004, 12:28 PM   #189
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Gondor - Visitors in the night I

‘Hasten, brother!’

Wahid took hold of his companion’s elbow and hurried him to the gate’s entrance. Only one guard stood on either side, and both their attentions seemed drawn to someone passing down to the tiers below. Wasim picked up his pace, speaking low, ‘There lies only one last gate between us and the completion of our journey. One last thing to do, and then we can return home.’

As they emerged from the gate, Wahid’s brow puckered beneath his hood, and he drew his brother closer into the shadows of the wall. A quick glance had revealed the guard’s interest – a giant of a man was preparing to enter the gate to the fifth level. Wahid squeezed his brother’s elbow, both their noses catching the scent of the passing stranger.

‘Who was that?’ hissed Wasim as they made their way toward the final gate. ‘I know not. But he has gone now and does not concern us.’

A tall planetree in the courtyard of the Houses of Healing was their intended destination for the moment. Slipping into the shadows afforded by the leafy branches, they stood leaning against the flaky bark of the trunk to catch their breath, collecting their thoughts for the last leg of their journey. Their vantage point did not allow them a look at the buildings that stood in the upper tier, but then they did not need one. The images on the map they had been given were burned into their memories, as were the previous nights' flyovers they had done. Clear to them, though, were the number of guards that stood at the ready on either side of the entrance to the city’s last gate. And near to it stood the Guard House, many of the small windows in the long row down its side still lit by burning lamps.

The two brothers pushed back their hoods, nodding their twin heads to one another. A flutter of wings . . . a soft rustling among the leaves . . . and there in the top branches, two small crows perched, their dark brown eyes fixed on the King’s residence . . .

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Old 05-04-2004, 03:08 PM   #190
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Surinen

In the early morning light, as the confusion subsided and the people melted away returning to their homes, Surinen found Latah dolefully picking among the charred remains of Ayar's tent. Wrapping his arm about her shoulder he spoke gently, trying to cheer her and offering his help. And while their leader, the guardian of their people, was borne away by four men, each holding one corner of the sagging blanket, the outrider walked along side his cousin searching in the dust and mud for anything of value that could be saved.

Buckles, knives, metal goblets, ornaments and a few other things they gathered into a pile around a small scorched trunk, putting the rest aside to be later destroyed. But as they walked, Surinen's mind was in turmoil. "Latah," he said, his thoughts pressing him to speak. "Please do not spare me, but tell me of your father's thoughts in my regard, for I sense that he no longer trusts my judgment, and I do not know why that should be." Avoiding her curious glance the wiry man picked up an inkwell of discolored bronze turning it over in his hands, feigning an attempt to polish it with the end of his loose fitting sleeve. "Have you seen, or perhaps heard any rumor that I have done something to wrong him, or has Mîrya's shame cast this shadow of doubt over me? It would be a great relief to know why he might treat me so that I now feel cut off from him."

"I have heard of no complaints against you or your sister from anyone, cousin," Latah replied with sincerity, her faultless brow furrowing as she considered him. "But Fador speaks to no one of these things, least of all to his daughter. It was never his wish to burden me with such weighty matters," she said, frustration creeping into her words as she searched the ground once more. "And he only asks of my work, and shares none of his many troubles or vexations."

"I see," Surinen said, more than a little disappointed at this seemingly hopeless turn. "And has Narayad proved more willing to confide than Fador?" The outrider asked to divert the course of his falling spirits. For it amused him to think his proud friend might confide such things to this girl that he had taught to catch scorpions, in the days when her legs were as lanky as her braids, and she could not yet change shape.

Latah grinned, “He is learning cousin, learning.”

The muted clanking of a scabbard interrupted their conversation and they both looked up to catch sight of Thorn striding barefoot toward them, retying the leather thong that held his long hair as he walked. Stopping at the trunk, he surveyed the fruit of their searching, shaking his head.

“The vessel that held incense still has not been found,” Latah reported.

“Not yet,” Surinen added. “It must be here - somewhere. But how is the Meldakher now Thorn?”

“She still fights a great battle, but has been granted a reprieve for a time it seems, thanks to the ministrations of the man you have dubbed ‘grandfather’. But you should be more careful, my friend. He might take offense at the designation, and with his skill cause you great mischief.”

“But with age comes honor and experience,” Surinen said.

“Let us always hope so,” Thorn muttered. “But I have come to ask that you join Narayad in watching over our visitors until a place can be made ready for them.”

“As you wish,” the outrider said starting toward the lean-to, “I will go immediately.”

“One more thing that you should be made aware of,” Thorn called after him. “This one called Rôg knows our clan’s speech, so take care what you say in front of him.”

“Yes Thorn, I will be careful,” Surinen reassured him, before he grew silent trying to recall exactly the words had been spoken the night he and his friend had shared coffee with Rôg.

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Old 05-05-2004, 02:07 AM   #191
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Korpúlfr

Korpulfr stood before the doors of Lord Falasmir’s main audience hall, an attendant took his jacket and a dutiful guard searched his person for any concealed weapons. An unnecessary task as Kor had already been searched at the gates, but a precaution he knew that the obsessed lord would deem necessary. Once satisfied that he was unarmed the guard gestured for him to continue, telling him that Lord Falasmir was expecting him.

‘Off course he is!’ he thought bitterly, knocking on the ornately carved door and waiting for a response.

Falasmir had already kept him waiting for several hours, sending his commander-in-chief to question him extensively regarding the events of the previous evening. He quickly realised that they were looking for someone to take the blame, to appease the unrest of the lords subjects in the wake of the Gondorian’s attack, but mostly to prevent giving one of Falasmir’s ambitious rivals an excuse to question his ability to rule and procure allies with which to usurp his coveted position. If he was not careful, he would end up being their scapegoat and that he could and would not allow!
“Enter!” a booming voice beyond the doors called. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself for the task ahead, he pushed open the heavy doors and entered.

Lord Falasmir impatiently paced back and forth on his dais, but instead of the lords usual assortment of ministers and couriers there was only Wyrma and three of the guards who had be charged with the supervision of the Gondorian captain and his first mate. As he drew nearer Falasmir turned and Korpulfr’s darks eye fell on the bloodied dagger in the man’s hand, his gaze immediately shifted to the three guards and it was then that he noticed the dark heap crumbled on the floor next to them, the fourth guard! He realised swallowing hard.

He off course like many others had heard the numerous rumours of Lord Falasmir’s temper and his deadly punishments for failure, but until now, he had never witnessed them. In fact, he himself had always believed the Lord to be a little past his prime and more than a little over indulgent, as could be seen in the lord’s, corpulent figure and the amount of gold that adorned his personage. However, as Falasmir looked in his direction his suspicious dark eyes considering him, Korpulfr saw a ruthlessness that he had not before perceived, realising that he hesitated he quickly dropped to his right knee and lowered his head in show of respect that he did not feel, consciously aware that Falasmir still held the bloodied dagger in his right hand.

“You sent for me my lord.” he humbly spoke to the marbled floor.

“Yes, now on your feet I still have a few things that need clearing in my head and I warn you lad I am in no mood for lies or deceit. Do you understand?” Falasmir spoke clearly his eyes narrowing to measure his response and the dagger rose to indicate the depth of his mood.

“Yes My Lord.” Korpulfr answered simply as he slowly rose to his feet.

“These men…” Falasmir began using the bloodied dagger to point in the direction of the disgraced guards, “Tell me that you prevented them from filling out their duties to their fullest capacity by not allowing them into your home, is this true?”

“My lord it is a rule of my house that no guest may enter bearing arms, a rule that I’m sure you yourself can well appreciate my lord.” he answered without hesitation. Then turning a sharp and disgusted look on the three remaining guards he continued. “These men refused to give up their weapons even after the Gondorian’s relinquished theirs, therefore they could not be permitted to enter.”

His tone lost the hard edge that had emerged and again became passive as he turned back to face Lord Falasmir, “However I did not turn them away, they were permitted to remain in the courtyard where food and refreshment was brought to them. When the Gondorian’s requested that they wished to retire for the evening I delivered them safely back into the care of their guards.”

“And just what did you and the treacherous captain discuss I wander?” Falasmir mused aloud resuming his contemplative pacing.

“Trade mostly my Lord, myself and many of the other traders present at my table were curious as to what trade customs the Gondorians adhered too and what other things of value the people of the north had to trade. In return, we educated the Gondorians in regards to our laws and customs. We also informed them how the nomadic traders of the dessert differed slightly in their approach to such things. Then after supper there was song and storytelling as is the custom of our people; Captain Mithadan even entreated us to a tale of his own.” Korpulfr answered honestly, though he left out any mention of shape shifters, confident that the Lords men who had remained to question his household would have received roughly the same response. Falasmir’s reflective gaze and the slight nod of his head indicated that this was so.

“And at no time did you get any indication of the Captains intended treachery, nothing unusual or out of place?” Falasmir pressed.

“No, My Lord, I assure you that if I had I would have most certainly informed your guards at once. However, as it was Captain Mithadan and his First mate seemed friendly and forthwith concerning our many questions regarding trade and I had no reason to hold them with any suspicion.” Korpulfr paused for a moment as if remembering something.

“What is it, you remember something?” Falasmir pressed seeing his thoughtful repose.

“Hmm well it might be nothing, but now when I think on it, it was a might strange…”

“Well spit it out man what is it!” Falasmir snapped spraying him with saliva.

“Like I said it may be nothing, but the Captain did excuse himself on several occasions taking with him on each occasion a very large and very expensive may I add bottle of liquor. I had thought at the time that perhaps the good Captain had a bit of a drink problem, it never occurred to me that he may have been … er well… or that they….” he finished uncomfortably shifting his gaze to take in the already disgraced guards. Falasmir followed his gaze his eyes glittering with rage and dissatisfaction.

“He lie’s my lord!” Two of the guards chorused fearfully, but the third who Korpúlfr knew as Seft just glared at him contemptuously, “It is him and his dessert filth, they helped the prison…” one began pointing an accusing finger at him.

“Enough!” Falasmir bellowed before the man could continue and in two long purposeful strides, he was upon them his dagger held threateningly close to the startled guard’s throat.

“I have already had the vendors in the market questioned and they seemed to think that several of you where quite intoxicated, one even commented on the fact that one of you had trouble keeping down his supper!” he growled throwing the guard back in disgust.

Falasmir now looked between the four of them; Korpulfr did not miss the glint of suspicion in the Umbarian lord’s eyes, as he looked his way nor the tightening of his hand about the hilt of his dagger as he considered his guards. For a horrifying moment, he felt almost certain that Falasmir was just going to kill them all, when Wyrma stepped forward, placing herself behind Lord Falasmir and began whispered in his ear.

Korpulfr had completely forgotten she was there for during the entire proceedings she had said and done nothing, but now she held the infuriated lords ear. He could not hear her whispered counsels, but Lord Falasmir’s anger seemed to abate and he now looked on him contemplatively, which made him feel more uncomfortable than when the man seemed just about ready to kill them all. Finally Falasmir nodded and Wyrma left his side and made her way from the room without so much as a glance in his direction.

“It seems you hold the favour of my newest advisor,” Falasmir said, re-sheathing his dagger and looking him up and down with a cursory glance. “It is lucky for you that she seems to think that you speak the truth and that her counsels have not yet failed me!” his eyes narrowed dangerously and Korpulfr took in the silent warning they conveyed.

At that moment, Wyrma reappeared with half a dozen well-armed guards. Falasmir stepped back at her entry then addressed the armed guards. “These prisoners are to be escorted to the dungeons where I will see to their punishments personally,” he ordered, pointing in the direction of Seft and his companions. The guards hesitated looking at their lord not understanding.

“NOW!” he bellowed, “they have failed in their duties and will be punished accordingly.”

The guards immediately carried out their lord’s orders and escorted the pleading men from the room, lifting the dead body of the fourth disgraced guard and taking it with them, Kor watched them leave then turned remembering that he was not alone.

“Lady Wyrma would like a word with you before you leave master Korpulfr, if you will excuse me I have business to attend too.” He said dryly, indicating the door. He then nodding curtly to his advisor, before following after his guards.

Once Falasmir was gone, Korpulfr turned to tell Wyrma about her son and the Gondorian’s but she raised her hand to stop him. “Not here, follow me,” she whispered. Korpulfr nodded then followed the Matriarch through a secret door to the rear of Falasmir’s dais, she lead him in silence through a number of narrow passages, until they seemingly reached a dead end then bending down the woman slipped her hand in a small hole and a door sprang open. Then grinning at his obvious surprise she gesture for him to enter, closing the secret passage behind her as she followed him out into the opulent drawing room of her quarters.

“Now we can speak,” she said sitting herself down on an ornately carved ladder back chair and gesturing for him to do like wise. Taking the proffered seat, he began by telling her of Mithadan’s tale regarding the skin changer named bird and his mention of the Beornings their cousins in the north. If Wyrma was concerned or shocked by anything he told her then she did not show it, her age weathered face remained impassive and thoughtful as he continued.

“At the end of the evening Tinar decided that it would be best to follow the Gondorians to see what they were up to, I tried to dissuade him but he would not listen and before I could stop him he was gone. My own disappearance would have been noticed so I sent Hasrim to find Tinar and make sure he was alright, he does not know the dangers like we do,” He explained. Wyrma nodded then indicated for him to continue.

“Hasrim returned this morning, it seems that Captain Mithadan and His mate Airefalas did not make it back to their ship and were forced to find another route. They left the city and headed north.” At this revelation, Wyrma rose from her seat and walked towards the large bay windows that looked over the city, her hand clasped firmly behind her back.

“And my son, “she asked her back still turned to him.

“I’m sorry he took flight and Hasrim lost his trail. Hasrim is an expert in tracking but even he cannot track birds.” He replied regretfully.

There was a long silence as Wyrma stared out of the window seemingly contemplating how these new events would affect her plans, then as she turned to look north Kor saw a grin spread across her face. Not a warm or satisfied grin but an evil grin that chilled him to his very core, but as quickly as it had appeared it was gone and Wyrma turned fully to face him her face again impassive making him wonder if he had not just imagined that frightening image.

“Korpulfr you will look for the Gondorian’s and my wayward son, then continuing to extend the hand of friendship as you have done you will tell them that you have heard word of their friend and that you can take them to her. You will then lead them to our city where I will decide what is to be done.” Wyrma said returning to her seat and opening a draw in her desk.

“To the City!” Kor exclaimed a little puzzled.

Wyrma stopped what she was doing and looked up and he caught a slight hint of annoyance in her gaze. “Yes, Korpulfr to the city, they know to much of our people to be allowed to walk free at this tenuous time.”

She then returned to the draw pulling out a single leave of parchment and smoothing it out on her desk. Still Korpulfr was not content. “But what of this shape changer… this Bird?” he pressed. Wyrma again looked up and this time an amused grin traced her thin lips.

“You worry to much, Master Korpulfr, but if it will put your mind at ease I will have your father send out a search party. If this Meanwaith is truly looking for her people then she will not be to hard to locate, then perhaps your story to the Gondorians will not turn out to be a lie after all.” Then not waiting to see if he reassured she flipped open her ink well and dipped her quill into the black ink. then began to write, continuing to speak to him as she did.

“There should be two others already following the Gondorians, Mus’ad and Nizar Brothers of the Wyrm clan, you will give them this!” However, Kor was not listening he was distracted nothing about the Gondorian’s had made them seem a threat; he knew that appearances could be deceptive… but what if they were wrong and Gondor was not their enemy!

Noticing that Korpulfr was no longer listening and perhaps perceiving his doubt Wyrma spoke again this time like a mother speaking to her child. “You have not forgotten Gondors part in your people’s losses, how they stole lands that belonged to the people of the south planting the first seeds of hatred that they later blamed the Umbarian lords of planting themselves.”

Kor’s mind burned with hatred, “Yes! If not for that hatred, the Umbarians would never have allied themselves with the dark one and sought to enslave our people. They are both to blame!” he snapped bitterly all his doubt now forgotten. “They are not to be trusted liars and deceivers all!” Wyrma finished handing him the now sealed envelope.

“What of Falasmir?” Kor asked slipping the envelope into his pocket, “Let me deal with Falasmir, now go or the Gondorian’s will have almost a full day on you.”

“So it is said it will be done!” Kor replied rising and pressing his fist to his chest and dipping his head in the required sign of respect, then turning sharply he left Wyrma’s quarters and hurried back to his house.

Hasrim as perceptive as ever already had two horses packed and ready to go, However Kor insisted that he pack another for Tinar. It was early evening before they were finally ready to leave, which suited both men fine as the cooling of the searing afternoon heat would make it easier for them to travel at least until the freezing of the cold night was upon them. The desert was a harsh land but the desert people and the Maenwaith had both long ago learned how to survive, travelling was done in the cooling periods from dawn till noon and then again after dusk, the times in between where either too hot or too cold. A man could burn to death in the searing heat of the afternoon or freeze to death in the bitter cold nights if he was not careful.

With a final few parting words with Asrim who he was once again leaving in charge, he and Hasrim set off towards the place where Hasrim had last seen their quarry.

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Old 05-06-2004, 01:33 AM   #192
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Gondor – the King’s residence

‘Tomorrow, then, Arwen . . .’

Elessar closed the doors to the Queen’s chambers smiling as she bade him a good night. ‘A long night, more likely,’ he thought to himself as he trod the short distance to his set of rooms. There were several small stacks of agreements and forms to be got through before he rested. He nodded at the three guards stationed along the way; the one to the side of the Queen’s door, the one at the head of the staircase, and the guard at the entrance to his own chambers.

‘M’Lord,’ said the man said, opening the door as the King approached. A quick glance round the front room showed that all was in order as he ushered Elessar in. ‘Have you just come on, Halmir?’ the King asked as the man opened the other doors and checked them also. It was a routine he had done innumerable times, yet each time he did so, he looked with fresh eyes at the familiar surroundings. Halmir turned with a nod to Elessar. ‘I’ll be here until just past midnight, m’Lord,’ he answered walking back toward the entryway. ‘Just call out if anything is needed,’ he said as he went out closing the door behind him.

On his way to the small office just off the main room, Aragorn paused to open the shutters of the large window that looked southwest toward the Anduin and leaning on the sill, surveyed the night’s view. Most of the city had gone to their rest. But there were soft lights shining in a few of the windows of the Houses of Healing, and lamps scattered here and there along the pathway to the lower levels, safely guiding the footsteps of those few still out and about. And there, on the lower levels, still glowed the lights that marked the city’s busy taverns.

A fresh breeze blew in, riffling the sheaf of papers held in his hand; a reminder that he’d best be about his business if he wished to sleep at all. With a sigh, he entered his office. There to his right was his desk, the quill he had been using earlier in the day still lying where he’d left it on the green baize blotter. One of the servers, he saw, had filled his inkwell, in anticipation of his need for it tonight. Once in his chair, he pulled off his boots, and threw them toward into the corner. He was half tempted to fill his pipe, but stayed his hand; picking up, instead, the quill to sharpen its nib with his penknife.

Elessar turned up the small desk lamp and leafed through the first few pieces of parchment he’d laid on his desk. Through the small slit window above and behind him the occasional night breeze crept in, freshening the air in the room. Drawing out what appeared to be a particularly urgent missive, he bent over it, focusing his whole attention on what needed to be addressed . . .

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Old 05-06-2004, 02:11 AM   #193
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Gondor - Visitors in the night II

Several hours had passed since the brothers began their watch. As on the previous nights, the lights on the top floor of the residence in the Queen’s apartments had gone out first, while those of the King burned far into the night. And as before the large window in Elessar’s main room remained invitingly open – secure it was supposed because of its height from the ground.

All was quiet as the two crows leapt up from their branch and flew quickly to the broad sill of the King’s window. The one lamp on the table near the door burned low; the room was empty of people. Stretching his neck round the corner of the frame, Wahid could see the brighter light of the desk’s lamp to his right.

‘He’s in his office,’ he whispered to Wasim. ‘Fly to the high little window above his chair and drop down on him. I’ll come in here, from the side. The Great Wyrm willing, we can finish him off in short time and be on our way back south within the hour.’

Wahid dropped softly to the floor, changing to mannish form. His slim fingers found the double edged knife they had hidden previously in the crack beneath the sill. Flattening himself against the wall, he moved along it toward the door to the office, listening intently for any movement of his target. Just outside the door he stood still and silent until he heard his brother land on the hardwood floor below the little window.

There was a cry as Wasim’s garrote pulled tight against the King’s throat. Wahid rushed in intending to finish off the man, but Elessar kicked out with his stockinged foot and caught him square in the gut – knocking him hard against the door jamb. The knife flew from his hands, clattering loudly across the floor. Wahid ran quickly to fetch it, but Halmir had heard the odd sounds coming through the door. With a cry, he burst through the entryway, the guard from the stairs following close behind.

Wahid was pinned to the floor with a lance through his chest by the stair guard. Halmir, his sword drawn, flew into the King’s study. Elessar, he saw, was clawing at his throat in an attempt to loosen the deadly noose held tight against it. And holding that noose was a wiry, dark haired man, who looked at Halmir with a sneer on his face as he tried to cut off the King’s breath.

Halmir aimed a downward cut at the man’s arm nearest him, the tip of his sword dealing a small glancing gash to the olive forearm of the assailant. It was enough to make him loosen his grip on the garrote, and Elessar ripped the thin cord from his neck, turning round to deliver his own blow to the man with the penknife he’d left on the desk. Halmir held back from any further thrusts of his sword in the small quarters, not wanting to injure his King.

Wasim called out to his brother in their clan tongue to flee, glaring at the Gondorians when the face which appeared in the doorway was that of the stair guard. With a strangled cry he leapt upward, leaving the other three men to watch in bewildering confusion as his form changed to that of a small crow and fled through the small slit window into the welcome cover of darkness.

‘Skinchanger,’ rasped out the King, regaining his wits quickly. ‘Alert the guards, Halmir,’ he ordered, pushing the man out of the study and toward the door. ‘And you,’ he cried, motioning for the other guard to follow him. ‘Come with me! We must see to the safety of the Queen!’

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Old 05-07-2004, 10:10 AM   #194
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Baran was awakened by a knock upon the door of his room at the inn. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes and scratching at his beard, he stood and walked to the door even as he heard a second knock. "Alright, alright," he said with a yawn. "I'm coming. I'll be right there."

He opened the door to find the corridor outside his room crowded with men at arms wearing the black livery of the City. They were accompanied by the innkeeper who looked extremely unhappy. The soldiers entered the room with their weapons in their hands. Baran found himself standing with a spear pointing squarely at his chest. "I'm sorry Baran," said the innkeeper. "They wouldn't wait. I'm sure this is a mistake that'll be cleared up right quick. I'll speak with Piosenniel. She'll know what to do."

The leader of the contingent of guards stepped forward, keeping a wary eye on the massive Beorning. "You are Baran, the shapechanger?" he asked. Baran nodded. "Baran, the Beorning," he replied. "Then come with us," the guard continued. "No trouble now. If you change shapes, we'll be forced to kill you."

Baran raised a thick eyebrow. There were only five of them. He stood a good chance of defeating them if he took the Bear form. But that was not a certainty. Moreover, even if he did defeat them, he would remain a fugitive in an unfriendly city...a city he wanted to stay in. He still planned to take ship to the south and Minas Anor was the only place to book such passage. He shrugged. He had not done anything, so why not go along? He gathered an armful of clothing and allowed himself to be led off by the guards.

The streets were unusually busy this morning. As he walked along, escorted by the guards, he could hear many of the passerby whispering, "Shapeshifter." He felt as if every eye in the city were on him as he was led up two circles and placed in a well-built cell. The door closed with a thud. A guard shouted in to him, "We'll be watching you, so don't try anything funny!" He had no intention of doing so. He sank down on a bunk and promptly went back to sleep...
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Old 05-07-2004, 11:21 AM   #195
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Gondor

Wasim chances upon the prisoner

He had not flown far before fear settled in on him, replacing the anger and grief of his brother’s death. Fear of Wyrma . . . fear of what she would do to him and his family should he return with news of the failure of this mission. Wasim landed in a small hawthorn tree, thick with foliage and settled into the shadows near the trunk. He needed to think.

The maenwaith changed to a small, brown sparrow. They would be suspicious of crows, now, he thought, berating himself that he needed to let them see him change as he escaped. But a drab little sparrow would do nicely. Feeling the shift come over him he thought of his brother, the older twin; the one who had taught him the simpler changes. Can’t go down that path now. He ruffled his feathers, shaking the memory from him.

With the change came a creeping sense of exhaustion. Darkness played on his bird senses, prompting him to tuck his head beneath is wing. I’ll just rest a bit . . . the new day will come soon . . . I can think more clearly then . . .

~*~

Filtered sunlight, the sound of gruff voices and feet tramping beneath his leafy hiding place roused the little bird from his torpor. Loud mutterings of ‘Shapeshifter’ sent shivers down his spine, and he pressed himself even more into the shadows. There were armed men below, in the livery of the King. His heart nearly burst from his chest, beating so fast from fright. They have found me out! he thought wildly.

But the noises passed him by.

Hopping to the end of a branch, he dared a peek out. Guards there were, a great number of them. Their lances and swords bristled as they herded someone along. Wasim cocked an eye at the giant of a fellow who moved along in their midst, and a quick memory of the large man who had passed them last night returned to him. A memory of both the size and that vaguely familiar smell.

‘They name him “Shapeshifter”,’ he murmured to himself, as he flew along after the crowd. His understanding of the Common Tongue was limited. But he made out the words ‘king’ and ‘kill’ and one more, ‘prisoner’. Wasim perched on the gutter of the building they were approaching and watched as they prodded the man inside, then slammed the heavy wooden door behind him firmly and locked it. Several guards were stationed outside the door, their faces grim, weapons close at hand. From what little he could make out of their talk, they thought this was the one who had tried to kill the king last night. The sparrow hopped back in surprise at this turn of events, losing his footing on the gutter’s edge. One of the soldiers, seeing the bedraggled bird, threw a handful of small stones at him. ‘Go on you little thief,’ he yelled. ‘We’ll not be sharing our lunch with the likes of you!’

Wasim flew off, leaving a lingering farewell on the soldier’s helm, and circled round to the rear of the building. The back of the cell faced onto an alley and high in the back wall was a small, barred window, affording the occupant some fresh air and light. He landed lightly on the thick sill and took a quick look in. The man had lain down on his bunk, and appeared to be sleeping. His eyes were closed, at least. The bird settled in to wait until he heard the man’s breathing subside into a slow rhythm punctuated by the occasional snore and low mutter.

He dropped down in a silent glide to the man’s pillow to hear what he was saying. ‘Fools!’ he heard; then, ‘Weaklings!’ ‘Change’ followed in a threatening tone. A few mumbles . . . and then a strange word, one that conjured no meaning for him, ‘ . . . bear!’

The man twitched in his sleep, his big hand striking out like a paw in the air. Wasim launched himself out of the way of the flailing limb, but not soon enough. His tail was hit by the hand, knocking one of his feathers loose. Caught in an eddy of air it fluttered down in a crazy spiral to land near the prisoner’s nose.

With a barely stifled squawk, Wasim flew up to the sill and back to his tree. His mind worked feverishly with what he thought he had discovered. Here was something he thought he might use to take the edge off Wyrma’s anger. A maenwaith of some sort, here in the northern lands!

He flapped south from the city mulling over his small trading chip . . . the unkown word, ‘bear’, fixed firmly in his memory.

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Old 05-09-2004, 04:05 AM   #196
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Gondor

Pio visits the prisoner . . .

The five riders had avoided going through the city that day. Instead they had risen early and taken a leisurely ride east toward the river, turning north along it for a short way until they reached Harlond. Today was the day Faragaer had promised to take the children down to a few of the small trading docks on the river and then return the following evening. Cook was to go with them; she was wanting to visit a sister of hers just north of Pelargir.

Haladan, the first mate, hailed them from the ship as they approached. ‘Come aboard, Mistress Piosenniel!’ He winked at her as the three children raced up the plank followed by Cook at a slower pace. ‘I see you’ve brought our precious cargo,’ he said, laughing as the three young ones crowded about his long legs. ‘Show Mistress Hester to your cabin,’ he instructed Isilmir, ‘and get them all settled in, young sir.’

‘We’re leaving in about an hour and we’ll return late tomorrow,’ said Faragaer, coming to greet her. The children were already pushing Cook along the deck as they chattered like magpies at her and any passing deckhand. ‘Early in the evening. Come and sup with us, then you can make for home.’

Pio accepted a small glass of wine and settled in on the foredeck to talk with the captain until the ship sailed. He asked if she had been detained at all as they’d left the city. When she frowned at this strange question, he went on to say there had been some trouble at the palace last night. ‘And soldiers had swarmed down to the docks asking if we had seen anything out of the ordinary. We said no, asking what they meant, but they were close mouthed and glanced about at everything with suspicion.’ Pio returned that they had not come through the city and had seen no signs of the soldiers. ‘How odd!’ she thought, before the conversation turned to other matters.

~*~

Morien had made his way slowly to the level where the library stood, his progress blocked by the press of people and soldiers in the streets. This was one of the days he knew the Elf and her children usually visited the library then stopped off at the Inn on their way home. At each entrance to a higher level he was stopped along with the rest of the throng. Questions were asked by armed guards and those people not known by the guards or their fellows in the crowd were pulled aside and ‘looked into’. Fortunate for Morien was the fact that his was a well know face to the soldiery.

The library was closed, but a fury of blows on the side door brought a wide-eyed librarian to open it an inch or so. No, Mistress Piosenniel was not inside. No one was allowed in today. Morien turned and walked away, then was called back by the librarian’s shout. ‘She was going to the docks today . . . I remember her mentioning that.’ ‘Hope it helps!’ he shouted to the Innkeeper’s retreating back.

~*~

A last drink of wine was interrupted by the clatter of hooves and a loud shout. Pio stood up just in time to see Morien clamber off his mount and run up the plank. ‘Mistress,’ he said in a voice ragged from his haste and exertions. ‘It’s Baran. They’ve taken him . . . the soldiers have . . . they think he’s tried to kill the king.’

Haladan poured the gasping man a mug of wine and prised the details of the story from him. Morien wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and taking a gulp from the mug told all he knew – the rumors heard in the Inn, the truths he had gleaned from them, and finally the arrest of Baran because he was the only Skinchanger whose whereabouts were known.

Some of the crew had crept near to hear this fantastical story. Old one-legged Tom elbowed his way close in and stood shaking his head and muttering loudly at the details of the attempt on the King.

‘Can’t be that Baran fellah!’ he swore as he stumped across the wooden deck to where Pio sat. ‘Big fellah, ain’t he, with long dark hair all braided and a’hanging down his back. Feeling a might generous he was last night, and stood us some rounds at The Broken Pikestaff. Just come down from the liberry he said to get some fresh air. The crew from that ship from the south was in there and got to telling some tall stories, they’d heard second hand I’m sure, to him about some phantom tribe in the desert who could change their shapes at will. Airy-fairy yarns as far I could tell, but that Mister Baran seemed real interested. He kept the ale flowing and their tongues wagging almost ‘til dawn.’

~*~

Cook took the children under her wing, telling Pio there was no need to cancel the trip. She could rest assured they’d all be fine under the care of Captain Faragaer and his First Mate. ‘You go help poor Master Baran,’ she told the Elf. ‘The little ones and I will take our little trip and see you tomorrow evening.’ Faragaer gave his own reassurance, saying he would watch out for them as if they were his own.

Morien rode back into the city with Pio, leaving her to go up to the Locks without him as he had been gone too long already from the Inn. The guards were at first reluctant to let her in, but she would have her way, saying she did not fear the Skinchanger; he would do her no harm. They made her leave her sword with them, then ushered her in. The door creaked open and shut with a thud after her, leaving her to blink in the gloom of the cell. Baran had come awake, and sat on the edge of his cot blinking back at her.

‘There has been an attempt on the King’s life last night, Baran,’ she said, sitting down near the end of the bunk. ‘From what I have gleaned there were two Skinchangers involved. One is dead, the other escaped, but not before the King and his men witnessed the change from man to bird as he flew away.’ She watched his face as he took in the news. ‘I shall need to know what you were doing and where you were last night, so that I might speak to the King on your behalf. The fact that the assassin took his leave as a bird will speak well in your favor, seeing that your folk seem bound to the bear form. But there will still be suspicions that somehow you are in league with others of your kind from other parts whose abilities differ from your own. Elessar has known of the Beornings for many years, has he not? Had contact with them at times. He will be very curious to know about other sorts of Skinchangers.’

Pio looked up at the big man as he sat with his hands on his knees. ‘Did you have any suspicions of their having come to Gondor, Baran? The King will want to know.’

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Old 05-11-2004, 11:21 AM   #197
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Rôg

‘This didn’t break of itself,’ Rôg said, placing the incense pot on the ground between them. ‘And someone would have noticed almost immediately that there was a problem when new incense was put in and the old ashes cleaned out.’ He raised his brows at Aiwendil. ‘Unless, of course, the last one to do so was very lazy and unobservant . . .’

‘Or unless the last one to fill the pot and light it was the one who removed the clasp . . .’ finished the old man.

‘A snake in the nest . . . you think?’ murmured Rôg. ‘But who will believe us here if we tell them?’

Aiwendil was about to speak when the sound of another set of footsteps approaching made him pause. Hearing a familiar voice speak to Narayad, Rôg leaned forward and peeked out. The other outrider, Surinen, was there. His face in profile, features lit and shadowed by the small fire.

‘Hide the pot!’ Rôg hissed under his breath at Aiwendil, watching as the old man’s long fingers drew the faulty incense holder into the voluminous folds of his robe.

Narayad had now stood up and was speaking in earnest to Surinen. Their voices were pitched low and Rôg could not catch the words. He inched nearer the fire, holding his hands out to it, as if to warm them. His ears strained to pick up the thread of their conversation.

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Old 05-11-2004, 12:01 PM   #198
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Baran stretched his arms and yawned mightily. Then he scratched his beard before responding to the Elf. "I had no idea that shapechangers had come to Gondor," he answered. "And of course I will tell the King what little I know of them, though I know no more than I told you."

He looked about at the cell with disdain. "Horrid place," he grumbled. "I thought very highly of this King until he decided to lock me up in here."

"I do not know if he ordered you imprisoned," replied Piosenniel. "Or if some member of the Guard, having heard you were in the City, took it upon himself to act. You must understand that the people are shocked at the attempt to kill Elessar and are fearful and suspicious of strangers right now." She sighed and thought quickly about the unfortunate turn of events. "Where were you last night?" she continued. "Perhaps others can vouch for you."

"I was in the library until rather late," he answered. "The librarian can confirm that if he recalls anything that happened past the end of his own nose. Then I began the long walk back to the Seventh Star. But I was hungry and thirsty and chose to stop at a small inn. The Pikestaff it was called, I think. There I spoke with the barkeep and others who were there, telling and listening to tales. Surely someone will remember me..."

He frowned for a moment. "As I was walking down from the library, I passed two men who were walking up into the City. The both wore cloaks and hoods, so I could not see their faces and they did not speak to me. But they smelled odd..." He laughed at Piosenniel's curious expression. "I am both man and bear," he said. "My sense of smell is better than that of 'normal' men. But these two men smelled familiar somehow. Kind of like Beornings, as if they had some animal in them. But at the same time they smelled different and unfamiliar."

"You may have seen the assassins, then," said Piosenniel. "But that alone may not be enough to get you released. Tell me, is there any way to prove you are a Beorning from the north?"

"Other than changing into a bear?" he asked. Piosenniel nodded with a chuckle. Baran thought for a moment, then smiled. "Yes," he continued. "I think that I can prove at least that I come from the north. About ten years ago I visited the Lonely Mountain. There I met a comrade of your King. A Dwarf. Gimli, Gloin's son. He told me the tale of the Quest of the Ring himself. He mentioned to me something only he would know. During the seige of Helm's Deep, your King and Eomer, who I understand is now Lord of Rohan, were battling Orcs outside the walls. They were forced to retreat and Elessar stumbled. The Orcs were quickly upon him, but Gimli slew them and he escaped..."

"I have heard that tale," said Piosenniel. "It is well known."

"Ah!", exclaimed Baran. "But do you know what your King tripped over?" Piosenniel shook her head.

"Gimli told me," he continued. "And he thought this was rather funny. The men of Rohan had given Elessar a helm to wear into battle. Well, Gimli told me that the helm was rather overlarge, and when he and Eomer turned to retreat behind the wall, the helm fell from Elessar's head. It was the helm that Elessar stumbled upon!" Baran smiled broadly, and Piosenniel's eyebrows rose at this tidbit of news...
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Old 05-11-2004, 06:56 PM   #199
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Surinen

“Latah will be fine, do not worry,” Surinen said in answer to Narayad’s questions. “But now Thorn has asked me to come and give you company,” he said peering around the edge of the lean-to. And seeing that younger of the two guests sat before the fire, he continued in a whisper, “he also gave warning that Rôg understands our speech, so take care what you say.”

Narayad glanced over at the maenwaith, a smile spreading across features. “Oh, that would explain his sudden departure from the well. For if I remember aright I had suggested we kill him, poor creature. And it is one thing to be killed outright, but quite another to know about it before hand!” he said trying to contain the laughter that threatened to override his words.

“Shhh,” Surinen sputtered. “How would you have liked to listen to us discuss your fate? You would not be so merry as you are now, I should think.”

“He knew what to do, and so would I.”

“Yes, well…they are planning to find a proper place for these two, and so until then you are stuck with me. And they…” he said waving his hand toward the lean-to, “ are stuck with us.”

“That is fine, I will enjoy your presence. But tell me Surinen,” Narayad asked suddenly serious. “Has Latah found the incense pot yet? I am worried about this, for it is her work to keep it lit, and some have said that it was this that started the fire, and that now she is looking for it.”

“No Narayad, I am sorry, but she has not discovered it. And I do not understand how it is missing, though I have searched for it with her. Such things do not simply melt away!”

“Could someone else have removed it?” Narayad asked. “It sounds strange, I know, but perhaps someone had a reason for taking it away. You were there, did you see anything?”

“What are you saying?” Surinen asked.

“Only that I am wondering if this fire was truly an accident, or perhaps someone is trying to blame Latah for it. I do not know.”

“Who would try to blame her, Narayad? It doesn’t make sense. The whole encampment knows that she would not do anything to harm the Meldakhar.”

“Still, I would like it to be found… for her sake.”
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Old 05-12-2004, 06:18 AM   #200
Child of the 7th Age
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Ráma

With Sorona's departure, Ráma had quickly gathered her belongings and led her mount towards the side entrance of the caves, a small opening that faced the desert. Already the sun was up. The young woman caught a distant glimpse of Sorona's majestic figure silhouetted against the clear morning sky. The Eagle circled once, then twice, and finally disappeared. Ráma wondered if she would ever see her again.

Ráma could not remember the Elders or her mother ever mentioning Sorona's name. That omission, in itself, was puzzling. She knew her mother kept a careful reckoning of all those within the clan who could take on Eagle shape. The fact that Sorona had not slipped back into human form during their conversation was also odd. Usual custom dictated that if one maenwaith threw off an animal form to converse more intimately with another, the companion would respond in kind, unless there was some pressing danger nearby to make such a shift unwise. But Sorona had made no attempt to change forms and had not even explained or apologized for this departure from normal practice. Ráma promised to ask her mother about Sorona after she reached her home.

For now, however, her mind remained on the trip. Ráma intended to leave immediately, since she had fulfilled her bargain with the two strangers from Gondor. She was still concerned about Thorn's absence, although it wasn't unusual for him to vanish unexpectedly if he was on the trail of an important tidbit of information. In any case, the strangers had probably sailed home on their vessel and were leagues away from the shores of Harad. Still, a nagging voice inside her head impelled her to check one last time at the entrance to the caverns that fronted directly on the city.

With a sigh of resignation, Ráma cut back through the interior of the Caves of Herumor and threaded her way along the maze towards the overhanging cliffs. But before she could even reach that point, she was greeted in the front passage by two familiar figures mounted on the same camels that she had left with Lena. Mithadan sat atop the beast with a grace that was unusual for an outsider; the other one, Airefalas, clung to his mount as if it was a ship tossed amid churning waves.

Rama's first reaction was disappointment. She wanted to get home and these two would only slow her down. She resolved to do her duty by the letter of her oath, but otherwise to have as little to do with them as she could. This is certainly the advice that Narika would have given her and the other Elders in the clan. Outsiders could not be trusted, and men from Gondor were as far outside Ráma's experience as any she had met. She approached the men warily, and did not even bother asking what had happened to their ship.

Turning towards the men, she dispensed with any word of greeting, and urged them to make haste, "We must leave immediately before the whole city is up. There was someone making inquiries at the Cat's Paw, and I have a feeling that Falasmir would not take kindly to seeing his two Gondorians fleeing from the city. I will take you west of Umbar, where we will find a friendly caravan that can guide you east and north towards the Harad Road. That will lead toward lands familiar to you. My own duty lies with my family. I must travel south and inland to the spot where my clan awaits."
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