'I am not sure I would quite say the Old Lord is "on our side", Nim,' Arcon remarked. 'I doubt if he is on any side but that of himself and his House. But we do share an enemy.'
'If we tell him - and I think the idea worth considering - it should be only just before the peril manifests itself,' Kharnűn added. 'Else he will surely have too unhealthy an interest in how we have learned the fact, and in what the purposes of "Kamo's in-daulu" might be.'
'Oh, I agree,' Nimlothel answered. 'Still, it is hard not to feel a little . . well, not loyalty, but . . a little affection for the Fifth House. We've eaten their bread for long enough after all, and I think you will be of my mind that there are those here who do not deserve to be slaughtered by the Azassil.'
'We will save them if we can,' Gandalf said gravely. 'As to warning Gimilbâr . . I will sleep on it. We must remain true to our own purpose, and our true loyalty.'
'As to our immediate deeds,' Aglod said, 'by my counsel we will await the proclamation of the Temple's Peace with no sign we know aught of what is to come. How our "masters" react to it will, I trow, teach us much of how we should proceed.'
An hour after dawn had broken in scarlet glory over the Hills of Immâth in the East, the bronze doors of the Great Gate of the Temple were thrust back, and criers issued forth, accompanied by trumpeters and drummers, and with a guard of the red-clad warrior-fanatics. Loud blasts and a furious staccato of drum-beats accompanied their progress to the ten wards of Umbar, and to the Great Bazaar.
'Attend!' the criers called with lungs of bronze. 'Attend, all ye people of The City, foreign and native, slave and free! The Peace of the Temple is proclaimed, which none shall violate under mortal pain! The Lidless Eye shall wither forever those who break this Peace! He who offers violence shall die impaled upon a stake, accursed and nameless!'
'In two days' time the Houses are to assemble. Great the news the High Priest will proclaim! Let the Ten come, House by House, to the Arena. He who disobeys this summons shall lie beneath the wrath of the Temple of the Lord of the Dark! Attend! Attend! Attend!'
A stunning blast of brazen trumpets, a thunder of drums, and the messengers moved on. In the towers and palaces of the Corsair-Lords, counsels were swiftly opened as to the meaning of this news.
Wrybeak gazed down with his one good eye on the group from the Temple which stood on the dockside before the Fifth House's door. He nodded to himself as the messenger spoke, and winged back to the courtyard by the indoor nest of his two-legged companions. He would tell them what had been proclaimed - if indeed there was any need to do so. Already, as he saw, word was flying through the House from warrior to warrior and servant to servant.
Tahalian frowned at the letter he was reading. Not only because of the letter in itself - but over the fact that even here, inside the Temple, as one of the Azassil, he still had to expect that his letter had been read by other eyes before it reached him. Eyes that would report him to the High Priest if they found anything untowards in the letter. There was no seal on it, so there was no clear indication - but he knew what to expect.
The letter was written in the hand of his nephew, but it had been dictated by Tahalian's brother. His older brother could read well enough, but he didn't feel comfortable with writing, and usually got his youngest son to write for him. The boy, who had reached the age of fourteen half a year ago, was eager to learn anything to do with books. Too bad that they couldn't afford much in that direction. A small farm in a very small village in the South didn't bring in wealth for such extras.
In fact, his family had been happy to see Tahalian leave for Umbar in his youth, to seek his fortune there - it meant one less mouth to feed. And even though he hadn't made as much of a fortune as some of his fellow Azassil, he had made a comfortable living for himself. In fact, two years ago, when the crops of the village had failed, he had been able to send his brother money to buy new seeds for sowing the next spring. They might have starved except for that.
He guessed he wasn't unscrupulous enough. He might have become more rich if he had been. And he felt that he was less trusted among his fellow Azassil because he wasn't. There was a reason why he was among those left behind when the High Priest took most of them with him north of the city two days ago. To attend to spiritual matters, it was said. Tahalian wasn't so sure, he smelled politics - but he knew better than to ask.
He still was trusted with tasks of some importance, though. He had been left with the responsibility for the High Priest's scribe, one of the shebir-kish, whom he had sent on a visit to the Lord of the Fifth House two days ago. He couldn't find anyone to send to take her back yesterday, so he just sent the Fifth House a message that they would have to look after her for a bit longer. Today, on the other hand, it was more important to get her back, because the High Priest was coming back, and he just might need her.
Perhaps the lack of full trust was due to his loyalty to his family? He knew that his primary loyalty was to the Temple, but he was perhaps more concerned with his family than many of those around him. This might give him enemies - people who thought that those with too strong loyalties to family, didn't deserve any trusted positions at all ...
If he had been really rich, he would have made sure that his young nephew would get an education. His brother's eldest son would take over the farm eventually, but the youngest would need to make his living in other ways. With a proper education, he might become a scribe. He used to borrow books from the chieftain of the village - not that there were a whole lot to choose from, but in those books the youngster had found stories of kings and wars of old, enough to make him wide-eyed with excitement.
The boy had also found in the books - to the surprise and amusement of all in his family - drawings of statues of Castamir the Trueborn, looking just like himself. Tahalian's brother had mentioned this in earlier letters, telling how they had been teasing the boy that perhaps far behind in their family, there might have been a drop of royal blood. Not that they seriously thought so, there was no indication that this might be the case. And his nephew had taken the teasing in the friendly way it was meant, fortunately.
Tahalian's frowns over the present letter still had to do with his nephew. His brother was telling him that people from the Temple had come to the village and approached the boy. They had promised him that if he would come with them and do as he was told, he would get an education, and would have access to the libraries of Umbar - even the great library of the Temple.
This was surely a great opportunity, and even though no such thing had been mentioned, surely it meant that Tahalian would meet his nephew at Umbar. Would he care to look out for him and see to it that he was doing all right?
Dear brother, you are far too naďve, Tahalian thought. What are they up to with the boy? I hope he isn't as naďve as well - but how could he not be? Surely they have not meant me to meet him - if they had, they would have let me know. They didn't mean me to know. And now, when they know that I have been told, what are they going to do about it?
He shook off his worries and hid the letter deep in a chest. The Peace of the Temple had been proclaimed this morning - nothing very bad could happen while it lasted. He should attend to his duties - he needed to find someone to fetch the scribe back from the Fifth House, if enough Azassil had come back by now. He had told the kitchen staff not to wait for her, as he didn't know exactly when she would be back. If only she was back before the High Priest needed her, he should be all right - if not, he would be in trouble.
He hurried through the corridors, looking for someone to send - but there were still not many around. He went through some narrow corridors, taking him to different parts of the Temple grounds - corridors with some dark corners.
He never knew who followed him from behind a corner, creeping up on him and driving a dagger into his back, before running away in the opposite direction. Something had caused the other to miscalculate, though. The dagger narrowly missed Tahalian's heart.
[ 06-22-2009, 09:40 PM: Message edited by: Varnafindë ]
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
Gasping with sudden pain and shock, Tahalian convulsively grasped the edge of a nearby wall-hanging. The moth-eaten stuff frayed and broke from its bearing-rod, and he slumped slowly to the stone floor. His other hand was sticky with some warm wetness, and he realised it was his own blood pooling on the flagstones below him.
'Help!' he cried weakly. 'By all the Powers, help me!'
So this is what dying is like the voice within his head said calmly.
'Help . . .' he whispered.
Zeluké, slave-servant from Anambón, was grumbling beneath the heavy burden-basket balanced on her head, when she came round the corner and saw the weakening warrior. Her shriek of surprise and fear was supplemented by the crash of breaking crocks spilling from her dropped basket.
From: Perth, Scotland | Registered: Jun 2001
| IP: Logged |
Hurrying feet responding to the sudden din sounded in the stone-vaulted corridor, and the assassin slipped silently away, hoping his stroke had been enough to accomplish the purpose of his master.
'Murder! Blood! Thieves in the House!' the cry went up, and soon the Azassunath were scouring the Temple enclosure foot by foot, as the alarum gong echoed through its vaults.
Looking down from the high window of his private chamber, Utukhân heard the rumour, and a slight smile crossed his austere features. In a moment, there was a not unexpected knock at his door.
'Forgive this intrusion, Reverence!' a breathless Azassu cried, bowing deeply, 'One of our brethren has been attacked in the very Temple, and now lies close to death in the Chamber of Succour! Even now the House is being searched through from the highest tower to the lowest dungeon.'
'Outrageous!' Utukhân exclaimed. 'You have done well, Captain! Apprehend the malefactor, and by the All-seeing Eye, he shall die a thousand deaths as one!'
'Hearing is obedience, Reverence,' the man said, and withdrew.
The Old Serpent turned to the further corner of the room, where the hooded and cloaked young man who had looked up from his lore-scroll at the disturbance sat.
'Fear not, my noble prince; none shall seek to do you harm, that I can promise.'
Another figure, masked and dressed in black, stepped from behind an arris, bowed, and showed the old man the bloodied dagger he held in his hand.
'An azassu struck down in the very heart of the Temple!' Utukhân said softly. 'What a tale it would make - were any to hear it.'
Other messengers than the Temple's heralds were abroad: a scar-faced Nambónu strode purposefully towards the Fifth House's gate.
'Day's greeting, in-zâgil,' the warrior said to the guards. 'I seek Kittireldi of Anu-kanda, with message from Governor of Kaléfi.'
Whitey stared at the messenger for a moment, then exclaimed:
'Oh, you wants young Köttreldir, does ye? You there, boy, fetch Köttreldir, sharpish like!'
Túlú, who had been sweeping the courtyard nearby, dropped his broom and hurried off to summon Valkyr. The woman and her companions were still chewing over the previous evening's weighty news when the slave knocked at the door of their quarters. Valkyr hastened to the main gate at the summons.
'Kittireldi, Governor Akang fa Akiru say to you: Come again to guest-house of Nambóni by Temple. Be mahout for him of beast Earth-shaker, in twoday. This he command. All this be right with Lord Kimiba, hahé?'
'Aye, in-zâg: all should be well,' Valkyr replied.
'Is good. Morning early twoday hence, you come.'
The Nambónu turned abruptly, and made off towards the Bahar bridge, the woman of Khand staring after him.
Lord Gimilbâr and his most trusted kinsmen and counsellors were close-closetted in his private chambers for most of the morning. Of the fighting-men only Tiamâl was present. The rest of the in-daulil kicked their heels around the Fifth House compound or visited the local meeting-places to catch up on the latest rumours, of which no few were flying about the ways of The City. A palpable tension had gripped the Corsair stronghold. Only the 'Reddies' seemed at ease, swinging through the streets with more than their usual arrogance as they enforced the Temple's Peace. Inevitably, an 'example' had been made of some poor wretch, and a follower of the Third House, who had chosen the wrong moment to pursue a blood feud, had been dragged off to die on a stake in front of the Temple. Impaled through the lower belly by a stout, ten-foot battle-lance, then lifted up and set upright in the ground, the man had taken hours to die, screaming as the spike forced itself through his back and he slid in slow, jerking agony down the shaft. The onlooking crowd fainted, vomited or laughed according to their nature. There would be no more demonstrations of The City's usual easy resort to the knife after such a 'lesson'.
As the noontide approached, most of the advisers left the Old Lord's inner sanctuary. Tiamâl looked unusually thoughtful as he came into the warriors' hall.
'What news, Boxer?' one bold warrior asked.
'None needs concern you, Panther. Fight where you're told to, an' leave the thinking to them's got more up top, sithee?'
'Is fighting in prospect, then?' Arcon asked more softly as the grizzled warrior sat down.
'Mebbe,' Tiamâl answered gruffly.
'You will best know if we be ready for it, Boxer,' Kaino said. 'I think you will keep us sharp like wise warrior, who keep whetstone always near to hand.'
'S'what I'm paid fer,' Tiamâl grunted.
'What you and wise men speak to Lord, I will not pry,' the Nambónu went on carefully, 'but sometime not all wisdom will be found with those who read dusty scroll, see world only with eyes of great.'
The weapons-master said nothing, but his expression invited the warrior to continue.
'Some among us,' Kaino went on, his thumb jerking round the circle of the Company, 'keep always eye and ear full open, as you know, I think. We have news Old Lord surely will profit by, and all his House.'
'We?' Tiamâl enquired.
'I. The Ianilmari.* And two more maybe will surprise you.'
'So. You wants me to disturb Lord Gimilbâr in his deep thought an' troubles with news that might be "profitable", eh?'
'We do, Boxer,' Aglod cut in. 'We have, you see, a prejudice in favour of going on living. We rather think the Fifth House, and the lads here, have the same.'
The old fighter was not one to linger over a decision - one of the reasons he was still breathing after a score of wars.
'Very well,' he said, rising from his chair. 'But one question: who be these "two more" ye'll be wanting with ye?'
'Servant of Temple Nim-lotęl; old man with dancing raven who come here last evening.'
Tiamâl stared for a moment, then said grimly: 'This, as they say, had best be good. If not, the lot of ye'll find the feller as got a spear through's guts this morning got off lightly.'
* The Ianilmari: ie. Aglod and Arcon, disguised as veiled warriors of Ianilmar.
The High Priest had taken his young charge to a place where they could see - without being seen - the punishment that was taking place in front of the Temple. The young man had been one of those who vomited - Utukhân had noticed with a grim satisfaction that he had not fainted.
"Justice must be done, my noble prince," he said, back in his private chamber, later in the day. "The people must know that when the Temple has spoken, they are to obey. We are teaching them the will of the Dark Lord, and anyone who tries to resist it, must pay the price."
The other just nodded, not lifting his eyes to meet the High Priest's gaze.
"But you will learn not only to obey, but also to command," Utukhân went on. "In a few days, I will begin to teach you more about the Dark Lord. I will let you see him. Yes, here in his very Temple I will let you see him."
The 'prince' lifted his head and stared at the High Priest.
"See him?" he asked. "But surely that will be dangerous?"
"Of course it is dangerous," Utukhân answered. "That is why you must not do it lightly. You must cleanse yourself - and cleanse your thoughts - before you come before him. And the instrument in which you will see him will be cleansed as well. Such is the way we will show our reverence."
The White Demon, he thought. The Elf-slave. She must do the Spring cleaning. Tomorrow - or perhaps even today.
He sent a messenger to the kitchens to give her the message.
[ 09-15-2009, 12:22 AM: Message edited by: Varnafindë ]
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
'Wait here,' Tiamâl growled outside the Old Lord's private appartments.
The heavily-armed guards stared with undisguised disdain at the newcomers for a short time before the carved and metal-studded door opened again and the weapons-master nodded them inside. Only Nimlothel and Kaino had been in the luxuriously-appointed reception room before. Lord Gimilbâr and his nephew were seated at a table scattered with maps and fragments of parchment. Glasses of wine and other refreshments were at their elbows. Weapons drawn, the Old Lord's bodyguards stood behind him. By the window the papingo Dishassana rocked back and forth on his perch.
'Whee!' the demented bird cried as Kaino and the others made the Umbari reverence, the scarlet crest rising on his head like the plumes on a warrior's helm. 'Here's trouble! Down with the Baron!'
'The day's greeting to you, Kamo fa Odúgban,' Lord Azulbâr remarked coolly. 'Ikron and Azóleg we know, of course. And you, Nim-lotęl. But as for your - ah! - wayworn guest . . .'
Gandalf bowed low once more.
'Many are my names in many countries, son of Inzilbâr. You may call me Tharkűn, if it please you.'
'If it please me . . !' the Young Lord cried in outrage at this familiarity.
'Patience, nephew,' Gimilbâr said, raising his hand. 'Let us hear what they have to say, before we proceed to any hasty action. A ragged wanderer you look, "Tharkűn", nor is your profession - or what seems your profession - unknown to me. Yet seldom will a mountebank of the bazaar seek stripes by defying the great. If you truly have intelligence worth the hearing, your reward will be golden.'
'You are gracious, Lord of the Fifth House,' Nimlothel said. 'Yet even here, in your private chamber, we hesitate to speak before . . .'
'We?' Azulbâr demanded. 'What conspiracy is this?'
'None that augurs ill to you or your father's brother, Lord,' Aglod went on. 'Yet we do not seek further assurance; rather we wish to give it. As now you see.'
Aglod and Arcon began to unwind the turbans from their heads. Tiamâl and the bodyguards grasped their blades, and Azulbâr's hand went to the jewelled dagger at his waist. In a moment were revealed pointed ears, beardless faces . . .
'Shebhîr-kish!' Azulbâr exclaimed, jumping to his feet and drawing his blade.
'Treachery!' Tiamâl shouted, and his kesdar whispered from its sheath.
'Treachery, reachery, sword-eager Southrons!' a new voice broke in. All eyes turned to the window. 'The two-legged! Krah! A week-old corbie has more sense!'
For the first time, the Old Lord's urbane manner cracked, and he too started to his feet, his chair falling with a clatter behind him.
'An-kamet and Sankihan!'
'It truly talks!' Tiamâl exclaimed in amazement.
'Well?' Wrybeak demanded from his perch on the windowsill, his single eye glaring sideways at the occupants. 'Are we going to stab each other, or are we getting down to business?!'
'Whee! Here's trouble!' Dishassana put in mindlessly. 'Down to business!'
'It is a demon in form of a bird!' one of the guards exclaimed in superstitious terror.
'No demon I, in-zâg,' the raven replied. 'I am a true bird, Wrybeak son of Sharpbeak. We Wings of the Air make our nests in the mountains of the North.'
The man made a sign to avert evil and stared dubiously at the bird.
'Well, Lords of the Fifth House,' Arcon said into the stunned silence. 'We have put ourselves into your hands. With such an ally . . .'
The elf indicated Wrybeak, who still glared from the windowsill.
'. . you will appreciate that our claim to have knowledge of things thought unseen is not an idle one. Greatly can we aid your interests.'
'Our interests?' Gimilbâr remarked, resuming his chair, which the other guard had hastened to right. 'But what of your own? And you, Kamo, why do you stand silent and let others speak before you?'
The Nambónu looked uncomfortable.
'Because, Lord, I not truly leader of this in-daulu. These my comrades. We decide all together what we do. Over against Isebikisi* and wise old man here, I am child who walk in darkness.'
His companions looked with affection and respect at the humble hunter, who had already done so much to aid them in a quest not his own.
'And have you any other little secrets you had decided not to trouble us with?' Azulbâr enquired in a voice freighted with irony.
Aglod and Arcon exchanged glances. Sometimes a joke was simply too good, even on the edge of the abyss.
'Köttreldir is a woman,' Aglod replied.
Behind them, Tiamâl gasped and swore. Gimilbâr and Azulbâr were too high-born to indulge in such vulgarity, but it gratified the Eldar to see them blink.
'To return to your question, Lord Gimilbâr,' Gandalf resumed, 'your curiosity is of course most natural. We stand here because our interests and your own coincide in a most weighty manner: we share an enemy. Utukhân will not tolerate longer any in Umbar that oppose the Temple. He will not tolerate even those that do not oppose, but merely fail to bow down. His plans are laid. The trap is set to spring. Of this - forgive my plain speaking - you have suspected much, but we know more. We have our own reasons that his power be diminished, and our own goal in achieving it. If the Old Serpent reigns supreme, the Ten Houses will be his slaves at best, if they survive at all.'
'Hear Tharkűn, ye Corsair-lords!' Wrybeak croaked. 'I have seen! I have heard! I know! Krah!
'Hear Tharkűn!' the papingo echoed from his perch.
'Why did you not come to us when we were in full council?' Azulbâr demanded. 'There are others who should hear what you have to tell us.'
'Because, Lord, two are easier to persuade than twenty,' Nimlothel replied. 'Imagine what a botheration and outcry about demons and treason and sorcery there would have been had we revealed ourselves before all.'
The Young Lord made no further reply, but Nim saw her point had hit home.
His uncle suddenly sat up and looked piercingly at them all.
'Enough. I have not remained head of this House a score of years by neglecting such news as comes my way. What you have to tell us, tell. I do not think we will trouble our secretary again at the moment. Perhaps you, my nephew, could take up stylus and tablets.'
'I have some skill as a scribe,' Nimlothel interjected. 'I could take notes for you, as in former days, if you wish. It is much easier to think about the impact of what you are hearing if you're not trying to write it down at the same time.'
'But . .' Gimilbâr objected, not sure at first what the Elda's position would be on this occasion. In a moment however, he realised the offer was to good not to take up.
'We will take your services once more, Nim-lôtel.'
Wrybeak left the window and swooped over to land on Gandalf's shoulder.
'So then, Lords,' he croaked. 'Listen well to what we have learned.'
When the companions had finished describing what they had learned of Utukhân's plans, there was a long silence in the Old Lord's chamber. At length, Gimilbâr rose slowly to his feet and spoke, his voice labouring to control his inner turmoil.
'So. It has come at last. In this I see the doom of the Umbar we have known, save by some great reverse of fate. Truly is the folly of our division manifest. While we have squabbled over little things, the Old Man has gathered the true power into his hand strand by strand, till he has woven such a noose as will hang us all. Yet I am the Lord of the Fifth House, and the blood of Númenor runs in these veins. I will not put my neck under the heel of this shaven-headed charlatan and the misguided fanatics who follow him, nor of some village whelp he would have to king it over us. The sea is our heritage. Once it bore us out of the West to win new kingdoms on the shore of Middle-earth, and it will do so again. The time has come to depart for those who would not be thralls.'
'But . . but, lord master,' Tiamâl stammered. 'Is there truly naught t'be done as men can do? Bid me bring you the Serpent's head, an' I'll wade through a sea of Reddies to him, an' there's lads aplenty'd stand by me.'
'I know you would, old friend,' Gimilbâr replied. 'That is why the order will never be given.'
Nimlothel and the Company had never felt more admiration for their 'employers'. They might be pirates, but their courage, and the true loyalty of the old weapons-master, was not in doubt.
'Neiu,' Gimilbâr went on. 'I will not waste loyal lives in a vain defence. Only the Eighth House is a firm ally. The Baron, and Kephâd of the Third, are our open enemies. The others are envious or indifferent. Even with our forces joined, we cannot hope to stand against the hordes of Azassunath and the Nambóni with them. But ships we have aplenty, and those to man them. All who would cleave still to the Brothers' House we can bear away, and much wealth moreover. At Redcastle we can long hold out, and beyond the Gulf the world is wide.'
'P'raps we'd best see that them as would follow us don't have ships aplenty before leave-taking,' Tiamâl said, stroking his moustache as he did when contemplating something amusing.
'I like the thought, Tiamâl,' Azulbâr replied. 'Go on thinking it. On another matter . . . There is a thing, antan, has puzzled me since first I heard it, small though it might seem among so many shocks. This matter of the Governor wanting Köttreldir to steer his műmak. Why him . . I mean, her? Why now? What does it mean?'
"I thought I could stomach most things," the bo'sun told his fellow mariners on board the Pride of the South, "but seeing a man impaled thus, made me return my breakfast. Sad to see that many were laughing at the sight. But most won't want to risk being the next one. The City will be a safer place for the next two days. There's no call for us to go to the Arena, though, is there? The summons is only for the Houses of Umbar, I take it?"
"Correct," Captain Tirandun answered. "We'll stay away from the Arena - we'll leave the politics well alone. But a peaceful day may be just what triggers the events I'm waiting for. I told you that Mithrandir has a secret task for us, and that we may have to leave at short notice. I warned you that we might not even have the time to wait for those who were out in the City by then. A condition for joining this voyage was that you would be willing, if the worst came to the worst, to be left behind in Umbar."
"And willingly we joined you," the bo'sun inserted, "to serve you and to serve Mithrandir - and to have an adventure!"
Captain Tirandun smiled grimly.
"Could be more of an adventure than you'd bargained for," he said. "But I'll do what I can to make sure it doesn't happen. We should replenish our supplies today - and at the closest supplier, not neccesarily at the Great Bazaar - and not leave the ship at all tomorrow."
The Old Lord mused for a moment over his nephew's question.
'At such a time as this even matters seemingly inconsequential may be of import,' he replied presently. 'Let us not forget the question even if for now we have no answer. That tub of lard Kaléfi is capable of anything, that is certain. Why he should want a stranger so close about him escapes me, I must say. You, doubtless, have your own thoughts upon this matter?'
'As yet, we too are puzzled, Lord,' Gandalf answered. 'Perhaps some deed those of Anambón may not perform themselves?'
'Ahau!' Kaino exclaimed, slapping his hands together. 'You have said it, Misirandi! Now I see! In my country, great evildoers are punish under feet of the Great Ones. But always slave or foreigner will direct the beast. No freeborn Nambónu may use holy animal in such a way. This law not even Old Lion or his son will dare to break.'
'By the Hero-Brothers!' Azulbâr cried out, enraged. 'So this is the Priest's plan for us if we do not kiss his feet!'
'Kiss the Baron!' Dishassana squawked. 'Whee-hee! Down with his feet!'
'There are plans to make, and that swiftly,' Gimilbâr said firmly. 'The Eighth House must learn of this, and we must lay our heads together.'
'But how to send them a messenger, Lord?' Tiamâl asked. 'All the streets will be full of the Temple's spies. One of our men is sure to be followed.'
'If I may, Lord?' Nimlothel put in. 'One of your men is bound to be followed, aye; but what about a kitchen-maid taking her basket to the market? Send Kalashęl. She's a brave and sensible lass, and my friend. If I ask her to do this, she will.'
'So, Nim-lotęl,' Gimilbâr answered with an ironic look on his face. 'One of my servants will do this, if you ask her?'
'Yes indeed, Lord. And when she returns, you will press into her hands the paper giving her her freedom, and a fat purse of neshri for her new life.'
Azulbâr stared at the elf, Tiamâl gasped, but after a moment Gimilbâr gave a great bark of laughter.
'Bold as ever, Nim-lotęl! Ah, we will miss you! By all the Gods, we'll send the scullion, and she'll have her liberty too, if she returns. A letter, nephew; in cypher, need I say. Outline all we now know, but beg Kiblis to do nothing rash before we have joined counsels.'
'Té, antan mîn,' Azulbâr replied, and reached for pen and parchment.
"There is no sign of the malefactor," the Captain almost whispered. "Forgive us, Reverence - he is nowhere to be found. We have sought for him everywhere. No traces of bloody footprints, no knife hidden away in dark corners, not even a rumour of an outsider having been seen on the Temple premises. It's as if he had vanished into thin air."
Utukhân's eyes narrowed.
"And your men have been as diligent as yourself?" he demanded. "It's not that they would have found him, if they had only gone on with their search for a bit longer? Are you sure they have done all that they could?"
"All, Reverence!" the Captain exclaimed. "Everything has been done! To find him now, I think we would need a revelation from the Mysteries!"
"And the Mysteries are what I will ask," Utukhân replied. "Tell your men, then, that they have done well, and that they may rest assured that the Mysteries will reveal what is hidden in the dark. Perhaps not today, but surely before long. Then I shall deal with the malefactor myself - and he will rue the day that he was born."
The Captain bowed low again.
"Your justice is magnificent, Reverence," he murmured. "May your enemies never avoid it."
As he turned to leave, he halted. Another man bowed his way into the room, followed by a woman, who was fidgeting with the sleeves of her dress.
"The shebir-kish isn't there, Reverence," the man managed to say. "For two days she's been away. The cook here claims to know something about it, so I brought her before you."
"Away?" the High Priest thundered. "She hasn't come back from the Fifth House? What do you know about this, cook?"
The woman's voice was trembling.
"He - he told me not to wait for her," she said. "Noone could fetch her yesterday, and he said that he would send for her as soon as possible, but he didn't know when everyone would be back - so he couldn't tell me when to expect her. And now he's ..."
She broke down and cried.
"Pull yourself together, woman!" Utukhân exploded. "And do not speak in riddles! Who is this 'he' that you're talking about? Hasn't he got a name?"
The cook sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. She straightened and looked the High Priest in the eye.
"Tahalian, Reverence," she said. "And now perhaps he will never be able to send for anyone any more ... Revenge will be taken for attacking him, won't it? If I had whoever did it right here, I would ..."
She stopped, realising that it wasn't her place to tell the High Priest what to do - however indirectly.
"Tahalian," Utukhân murmured, a hint almost of amusement in his eyes for the fraction of a second. "Then it makes sense. Yes, we will take revenge when the Mysteries have revealed to us who is responsible for the violence against him. And the Elf-slave should still be in the Fifth House, then? Waiting to be collected?"
The cook just nodded.
"All is under control, then," the High Priest said. "You may leave. No, not you, Captain. You will go to the Fifth House to collect the White Demon. I need her this afternoon."
"Hearing is obedience, Reverence," the Captain said.
"But if -" Utukhân added, "if she is away, even from there - then, by the Eye, be assured that I will make the Fifth House pay for it."
The Captain bowed silently and fled from the room.
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
Kalashęl had been summoned from the kitchens, her errand - and its reward - explained to her, and she had been sent on her way, pale but determined, with the secret letter carefully hidden, with as much despatch as possible.
'She must go at an ordinary pace, and pause to buy vegetables, so as not to attract notice,' Azulbâr remarked. 'Would that our ward and the Eighth House's marched! As it is, she must cross the River, and will hardly be able to return before two hours are past.'
'It cannot be helped,' Gimilbâr replied. 'The time we will use as profitably as we may. Tiamâl: send to round up all our people who are from the House, and double the watch on gate and wall with trusty men. When all are gathered in, see that none passes out again without our leave. Nonetheless, send out the regular patrols, so that naught may seem amiss. There must be no whisper that we know what we now know. I will address both the warriors and the household in the Soldiers' Hall. They must know what is at stake, and I will give them a choice as to whether they cleave to us, or wish to try their chances in The City.'
'What will you do with those who do not wish to link their fate with yours, Lord Gimilbâr?' Gandalf asked.
'Do?' the Old Lord replied. 'I will do nothing. They can wait in the Lesser Hall until we have departed, and then go whither they will. And now, we have a thousand things to think on, and but a day and a half in which to contrive all. You say you have your own plans to frustrate Utukhân's design?'
'We do,' Gandalf replied. 'And your - and perhaps the Eighth House's - sudden departure will aid them very greatly, as well as preserving our friends, as we hope. With The City in chaos two days hence, many chances that now seem impossible may be open to us.'
'This device, this light that men have seen in the Copper Tower,' Azulbâr said. 'It is what brought you here from the North. You seek to destroy it.'
'At best. Or have it out of the Old Serpent's hands at least.'
'What is it, in truth?'
'A jewel, son of Inzilbâr. A jewel that came out of Númenor. And now, if we may, we will take our leave. Wrybeak we leave with you, to take messages or spy on our enemies, as you need him.'
Aglod, Arcon, Kaino, Gandalf and Nimlothel made their way back to their quarters, where Kharnűn and Adanedhel impatiently awaited them.
'Since you're all still breathing, I presume it worked,' the Marchwarden remarked as they came through the door.
'Hear that?' Arcon asked, holding the door open. A sound of bustling footsteps echoed down the corridors. 'The Old Lord is about his defences. They will flee, with all who will cleave to them; to Redcastle firstly, and thereafter who knows? And the Eighth, I guess, will take the seal's path with them.'
'Good news, by Ennűr's beard!'
The dwarf's eyes blazed. Nimlothel, meanwhile, had sunk onto a divan, her head in her hands. Aglod discerned her trouble.
'Kalashęl,' he said softly. 'Fear nor, sister, we will see her again. And through you will she taste the sweetness of freedom.'
'A Elbereth Gilthoniel!' the elf-maiden prayed fervently, stretching her hands towards the West. 'May it be so indeed!'
The companions were still discussing the reaction of the Old and Young Lords to their revelations, and how the plans of the Fifth House would aid their own, when there came a knock at the door.
Adan rose to open it, and revealed Kalashęl. She had returned with more despatch than anticipated, and it was plain from the roll of parchment she carried in one hand, and the clinking purse she grasped in the other, that Gimilbâr had been true to his word.
'Free,' the former servant-girl breathed. 'Free!'
Then she flung herself at Nimlothel's feet.
'Blessed lady . . true friend . . .'
Her words were renderred indistinct by her tears, which in a moment were streaming also from Nimlothel's eyes. She pulled her mortal friend to her feet and embraced her.
This moment none can take from me, Nim thought, as grateful for the chance to do this kindness as her friend was to receive it.
But there was little time to rejoice. A voice came from within the House, drawing ever nearer:
'The White Demon to the Gate! Nim-lotël to the Gate! The Temple will reclaim its own!'
Nimlothel almost panicked. They ought to have planned more - and now there was no time. But what they might have planned, about the Dwarf coming to see her, as they had talked about once, was getting impossible now anyway, with what they expected to come to pass over the next couple of days.
Besides, Kalashęl was listening, and she wouldn't burden her with yet another secret.
"I'll go back to the Temple kitchens, then," she said, "- that's where I spend most of my time. Should you ever have an errand to the Temple, Kalashęl, that's where you'll find me the most easily - or find someone to give you further directions."
Kalashęl nodded, and so did the companions - they realised whom the directions were really aimed at. There was no way they could plan to visit Nimlothel openly now. They would only have to try to find her when they needed her.
"But don't expect me -" Kalashęl began, when she was interrupted by a knock on the door. Adan opened, to find Tiamâl in the doorway.
"Ah, good, you're here as expected, Nim-lotęl," he said. "By the Hero-Brothers, I never saw a Reddie more nervous than the one out there an' his companion! Almost shaking, they were. I had to give them my word that I'd seen you less'n three hours ago, and that you couldn't have left the house without being noticed. Say your goodbyes quickly, though - they don't take kindly to waiting, and may not be satisfied with waitin' by the gate till you arrive, if they deem you're taking too long. And I'd rather not see them wanderin' about the Fifth House. Today of all days ..."
On her way back to the Temple, Nimlothel realised that the rush to be off, giving her time only for hurried embraces, might have saved her from some more awkward moments. It was likely that she would never see Kalashęl again. Probably the young woman would leave Umbar altogether, and go to the area where she might still find some of her kinsmen, to make a new living there.
The Company, however, she should see again soon - provided all went well so far. If not ... She dared not pursue the thought.
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
Wrybeak, about Lord Gimilbâr's business, saw the tall figure between her red-garbed guardians far below, as they crossed the Seven Bowed Bridge over the Bahar and came into the huge square in front of the stone-founded Temple. Nimlothel had cast a mantle over her head, as she ever did when abroad in The City, so as to attract no attention to her alien appearance. Respectable woman of the town went veiled when from home in any case.
Other eyes too saw Nimlothel returning to her 'home'. Edeb-Nargűl paced the broad wall-walk surmounting the Temple enclosure, the Azassil on duty giving the reverence in terrified respect as he passed. His barely noticed them, nor the black dot flapping high above - scavenger birds were common in The City - his eyes gazing rather on an inner vision. Two days! Just two days and the dream would be manifest. Total control of Umbar. The former warrior imagined in a kind of ecstasy the reckoning to come: the trampling of the disloyal and the unbelieving to bloody pulp beneath the feet of the műmak of Anambón. Or better yet, slaughtered at his own hands, his blade of black obsidian ripping open bellies, tearing forth living hearts, all to the glory of His Lord . . .
Edeb-Nargűl gripped the hilt of the dagger that hung ever at his waist, his other hand grasping at the parapet top. The clan-tattoos of his eastern nation, far off in the endless steppes of Rhűn, rippled on his chest and arms as the powerfully-built priest imagined each stroke of the blood-offerings.
Umbar will be ours. And Utukhân is old.
He had so little time to wait . . .
The priest's eyes re-focused on the group of three walking briskly across the cobbled square.
They return with the White Demon.
True, the Old Man valued the elf-woman, as trophy as much as servant. But would it not be the greatest culmination of the sacrifice to come to add her heart too to the burnt offerings beneath the golden dome? He must speak of it to his master.
It was with obvious relief that the two Azassil could deposit Nimlothel with the High Priest a little later. They stood back, awaiting further orders - they hadn't been dismissed yet.
"Gimilbar certainly kept you long enough this time," Utukhan said. "I was beginning to wonder whether he had sent you off to somewhere else."
"He would do no such thing," Nimlothel replied, suddenly wondering what would have happened if there had been no call from the Temple for a couple more days. "He was told to look after me until I could be collected. He has done as he was told."
"Was he, now," the High Priest mused. "Well, you have been collected. I told you a little while ago that it would soon be time for the Spring Cleaning of the Locked Chamber. I want you to do it right now. Go and fetch whatever you need. The guard will wait for you outside the Copper Tower. That means you, Captain - Edeb-Nargűl will give you the keys that you will need."
Nimlothel was glad that she had made everything ready several days ago. The same day on which she had been told, in fact. Soon she was picking up cloths, soap, beeswax, and the other items she would need - including a new type of wax that she had found this year. She was wondering whether it would be too hard - the beeswax was softer - but she might try it.
Personally, she thought that her task of polishing the Palantir was a waste of time. The High Priest might not have realised yet that the stone would need no maintenance. And she would rather have avoided the close contact ... But 'hearing is obedience', as she very well knew, so she would do as she was told, and wouldn't try to discuss her tasks.
The Captain was waiting for her outside the Copper Tower. He was talking to his colleagues who were on duty by the open gate. When she arrived, they were allowed in, and walked together up the long ramp to the top. Nimlothel was wondering whether you could really ride a horse up the spiral ramp along the outer wall of the tower. Perhaps a small horse - but they couldn't expect to have access to such help. They would need to carry the stone themselves - or perhaps, as they had discussed, let it roll by itself!
They passed by other storage rooms situated in the middle of the tower - some of the most important archives and some of the treasury rooms were to be found here. Only the top chamber covered the whole width of the tower out to the outer walls (except for the small crescent where the ramp ended outside the locked door), and was the only room fitted with windows. The ramp had no windows, but there were some lamps burning in lamp holders on the wall.
The Captain didn't speak to her, but it seemed that he had got his confidence back - Tiamâl had been right that he had seemed nervous, but the High Priest had had no comments when he returned with his charge, so things were back to normal.
Finally they reached the top. The Captain took out the small bronze key to the Locked Chamber, unlocked the door, and opened it. Nimlothel went in, expecting him to lock the door behind her, as the guards always did - but instead he followed her into the chamber, and locked the door from the inside.
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
"I have learnt something new about you today, Elf-slave," the Captain said, smiling. Nimlothel wasn't sure whether she liked his smile.
"We always thought that you kept to yourself," he went on, "and let no male approach you as - how shall I put it - as a woman. But today, over at the Fifth House, I heard that you had given your favors to one of the warriors there, and spent the night with him and his companions. Is this because he was a Dwarf - do you prefer other races over Men? Or can I take it to mean that you have begun to be more liberal with your favors? If so, I wouldn't mind a small sample myself, if you take my meaning, right here and now. I locked the door - noone will disturb us."
He grinned and stretched out his hand towards Nimlothel to touch her. She shrank away, her thoughts whirling in her head so fast that she didn't know where to begin.
"Favors?" she finally shouted. "I won't give you any favors! I never gave the Dwarf the kind of favors you are hinting at. He sought out my company, you heard that right, but only because he wanted to hear more of my poetry and my singing. Those musical favors I have indeed given him, and I would offer them to you as well, if I thought they were what you wanted. But they aren't. So keep your hands away from me!"
Nimlothel had never seen the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion. But she had seen Galadriel, who was the wife of one of her kinsmen, Celeborn. And she had been told that the special light that shone in Galadriel's eyes, came from having seen the Two Trees while they still lived. If Nimlothel had been able to see her own eyes right now, however, she would have seen something akin to that light being kindled in them. In fact, in that moment she looked very much like her grandfather, in those last hours of his life when he was wielding a sword against the enemy forces at the Battle of Dagorlad.
He had seen the Trees. But he had never seen his granddaughter.
The Captain saw her eyes. He shrank away from them, doing the sign against the Evil Eye.
"I didn't know that, shebhir-kish!" he exclaimed. "I misunderstood - I won't do anything you don't want me to - just don't look at me like that!"
Nimlothel calmed down, but she kept staring at him, to keep up the effect.
"I only want you to do as you've been told by the High Priest," she said, her tone more cold than usual. "Wait for me till I've finished my work, in here, or outside, if you prefer, and when I'm done, lock up the room and take the keys back to where you got them."
The Captain stared at her for a few more seconds. Then he nodded, unlocked the door, did the sign against the Evil Eye again, and ran out. He slammed the door behind him, and Nimlothel could imagine him pressing as close to the opposite wall as he could.
And he had left the key in the lock.
The key to the Locked Chamber. The key to the door they would need to open when they were ready to steal the palantir. The key they had thought they would have to get from Edeb-Nargűl's treasury.
Nimlothel's first impulse - when the enormity of the new opportunity had dawned on her - was to steal the key. But before she had even touched it, she realised that this was impossible. The Captain was going to use it right away. She wouldn't be able to convince him that it had gone missing. And she hadn't scared him enough to have him let her get away with such a blatant theft.
Her eyes fell on the cleaning materials she had brought. And suddenly she had to stop herself from shouting out with joy. The wax! The new, harder type of wax that she had bought! It was just what she needed!
She found a blunt knife in her basket, and carefully cut the piece of wax in two. Then silently, as silently as she could, she eased the key out of the keyhole.
The key had a distinct pattern. She put it between the two pieces of wax and pressed them together. She could feel the wax give in to the pressure, but it also felt firm - meaning that it would keep the new shape she had given it.
She pressed until the cut surfaces touched each other, and held them together for a few moments. Then she carefully pulled them apart, and sighed with relief when the wax split open and revealed the key with no visible wax residue clinging to it. Even more carefully she removed the key altogether. In the wax there was a perfect imprint of it. The perfect mold for making a copy.
She wiped the key with one of her cloths, and eased it back into the keyhole. Then she listened. No, the Captain seemed not to have noticed anything unusual. She started her work.
She was glad of the heavy cloth that covered the palantir - while it wouldn't be a hindrance for anyone who might be looking at her, at least it made her less aware of the stone's presence. And her polishing of the stone today was only done in the most perfunctory manner - as fast as she could get away with. And looking the other way as much as possible.
She spent more time than usual in cleaning the other parts of the room, as if to make up for it.
When she was done, she took out the key again, less silently this time - then it will be no secret that I have touched it, she thought. And if there is any wax left on it, I can claim that it came from my hands.
She gave the key to the Captain. He locked the door and escorted her out of the tower without any further comments. When he left her, he looked as if he wanted to say something - but in the end he said nothing.
Nimlothel went to the smithy and sought out one of the smiths who had done small jobs for her earlier.
"How soon can you make me a key from this imprint?" she asked. "It's supposed to be bronze, but perhaps some other metal could do as well, if it is faster."
"But you're in luck," the smith smiled. "We'll be casting in bronze tomorrow. A whole lot of new spearheads and arrowheads are needed. I'll throw in your key with those. They didn't send the original key with you?"
"No," Nimlothel answered, suddenly worried. "Is the imprint not enough?"
The smith examined it.
"Yes, this one is in fact good enough," he said. "I'll make a copy of it in plaster, and use that for the casting. Come back tomorrow afternoon, and I should have your key for you."
The key was ready when Nimlothel came for it the next day. Back in her room she hung it on a long golden chain which had been a reward from Lord Gimilbar on some occasion of singing at the Fifth House. The chain she hung around her neck, underneath her clothes - and her new "pendant" she hid in her bosom.
She knew that it would be her death if it was discovered.
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |
Though the letter Kalashęl had brought had warned him to expect this new mode of communication, Lord Kiblis' eyes and those of his chief councillors crept ever back, half disbelieving, towards the big, bright-eyed raven who sat patiently on the edge of the table of red marble at which they were seated, awaiting their decision as to the Eighth House's actions. Kibilbâr, his eldest son and heir, nephew like Azulbâr to the Old Lord, in whose honour he had been named after the convention of the Fifth House, arose abruptly from his chair and went to stand at the open window, facing east along the Bahar.
The spring sun danced on the ever-changing eddies of the wide brown river. Boats and lighters came and went as they always did. Folk and wagons - small black dots in the distance - could be seen coming and going across the Brother's Bridge, the next upstream from the ruined King's Bridge on which the Eighth House's palace and stronghold stood, jutting out into Barduin in what Kibilbâr had been taught to think of as splendid isolation. The scene was what he had always known; but now to the richly-dressed young man the well-known prospect had taken on an air of bright unreality. A puppet-play that dazzled the senses but hid emptiness.
Exiled. Without a home. Without a heritage. To leave all this behind forever . . .
Forced to flee - worse, chased out like vermin! - by the Old Serpent and his warriors. Had it truly come to this?
Kibilbâr turned back to the table. Voices were rising around it. His father's councillors were anything but of one opinion. In normal times, their Lord's decision was enough to quell dissent; but now, Kiblis was himself of divided mind, and those present sensed it.
The angry voices stopped abruptly as a servant entered bearing refreshments, including titbits for the new 'pet'. Sensing barely-suppressed impatience at the intrusion, the man set out his wine and cakes as swiftly as possible. Wishing himself hence with all speed, it was only when he was on the other side of the chamber door that he realised the big, one-eyed raven by the window had croaked: 'Thank you!', as he set down his plate of scraps.
Before the voices had time to rise again, another servant entered. He was carrying a small scroll and brought it over to Lord Kiblis.
"A message from your wife, my lord," he said, "from Lady Ildribeth. She said it was urgent."
Kiblis accepted the scroll from the servant, who bowed and disappeared. It was sealed with his Chief wife's seal. He broke the seal and unrolled the scroll. It contained only a short message, written in her own hand - this was something she hadn't trusted any of her scribes with.
"My husband and lord," the message said, "pay heed to the advice my brother is giving you. When I rested this afternoon, the Lady of the Sea came to me in a dream. 'I have seen your devotion,' she said, 'and I will aid you. Your brother is advising your husband right now in a grave matter. It is of the utmost importance that he takes this advice. Tell him to trust your brother's wisdom.' Then she disappeared, and I woke up. And so I urge you: Do trust our brother's wisdom! The Lady of the Sea will it. Most humbly, Ildribeth your wife."
Silently Lord Kiblis read through the message a second time. Silently he handed it over to Kibilbâr his son for him to read as well.
From: Narnia, also connected with Norway | Registered: Dec 2003
| IP: Logged |