Swiftly scanning the scroll, Kibilbâr sucked his breath in sharply as he read the conclusion. His eyes lighted on his father. To trust this portent or not?
Meanwhile, the old men round the board waited tensely to learn the import of the message that had so struck their master.
A fluttering in the air and a sudden weight on his shoulder caused the Lord of the Eighth House to start. The freakish talking raven had landed on his shoulder and was now - unmistakably! outrageously! - reading the letter. Gasps sounded round the chamber.
'Hmm, houmm! Good advice, Lord!' Wrybeak croaked, nodding sagely. 'Krah! Best to be gone, and the same with all despatch! Neglect not the advice of Our Lady of the Waters.'
In her luxurious chambers, scented with costly essences, Lady Ildribeth and her maidens were in a frenzy of activity as she went through jewel boxes, chests and closets to sort out what she could not bear to part with, and what could be left behind.
'The earrings, yes. The pearls, of course. That scarf . . . but those two I can live without . . . have them for yourself, if you like, Tenni my dear. How many dresses? Oh dear, I got this from Lady Atlamâr, it really is too bad . . . The green one, yes, and the blue with the silver embroidery. Oh, and I got that mirror from my brother on my wedding day. I simply can't part with it. And the tapestry! Three hundred neshri, no less. Four years' work! Pray the Hero Brothers there's room for it . . !'
From: Perth, Scotland | Registered: Jun 2001
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Lord Kiblis sat in the council chamber with his head bowed in his hands. There had been several minutes of silence, and at last the oldest and most respected of the Eighth House's chieftains ventured to speak. Rising to his feet, he cleared his throat.
'My Lord,' he began. 'We await your word. Whatever your decision, we will obey.'
Kiblis raised his head, and gave a deep sigh.
'I see things clearer now. Not by this dream, not even by the warning brought by our . . our feathered friend here. The threads come together at last. No, this I should - this we all should - have foreseen. And now that it is too late . . .'
There was a gasp around the marble table.
Another man blurted out:
'Then you truly mean . . ? We must all . . ?'
Kibilbâr smote his fist on the window-frame with a groan of despair.
'It pains me to say it, friends, but it is, it must be . . a wise withdrawal. That or slavery - or death,' Kiblis said, his voice heavy with emotion. 'Kibilbâr: we must act with all discretion. Go yourself to the gatehouse and command in my name that none - none! - of this House may pass beyond for any reason whatsoever, be it to attend their mother's death-bed!'
'Té, atu mîn,' Kibilbâr replied, and left the chamber, his stiff walk scarcely concealing his inner turmoil.
In the guest-quarters of the Fifth House, the Company of Umbar were ill at ease. Though the first part of Gandalf's strategy - that the Old Lord be forewarned of the storm to come - had, it seemed, yielded good fruit, the road to the Stone was still anything but unshadowed.
'If this day drags . .' Kharnûn began.
'And it does, it does,' Adan put in, smiling wryly.
'What will tomorrow be?' the Firebeard continued. 'It seems to me we have some outline of a plan, but so much still depends on chance. Nimlothêl within the Temple itself may prove invaluable, but what can we know of her deeds? I presume that we cannot risk Wrybeak?'
'Not to enter the Temple itself,' Gandalf answered. 'That would be madness.'
'Then we must just hope all will be well with her and that she will, two days hence, somehow be able to play her part.'
'We can be sure her every thought is bent on our cause,' Arcon said.
'I doubt it nothing,' Kharnûn continued. 'Yet now for two days she must be enveloped in a cloud of unknowing. And Köttreldir! To you perhaps the greatest peril of all is assigned! As mahout of the mûmak, you may yet wield a great weapon. Yet you will be alone in the midst of the Governor's host!'
Gandalf looked up, his eyes flashing suddenly from beneath his bushy white brows.
'Alone . . . I wonder if it must be so. Might Kaino not accompany you?'
The Nambónu looked up also.
'Perhaps so, Misirandi. Ahé! This waiting! Give me spear in hand, enemy to face, better than twoday of not knowing!'
Kharnûn slumped back in his seat. After a moment his hands went to the pouch hanging at his belt.
'I know what I need. Smoke! Praise the Maker they sell pipe-weed in the Great Bazaar, though they're yet to find out it's noblest use.'
The dwarf took his short, beautifully made silver pipe from his pouch and tamped down a pinch of fragrant leaf.
'I'll join you, son of Adhrûn,' Gandalf remarked, reaching for his own store. 'Praise the Maker indeed. And all praise to old Toby Hornblower, a genius among hobbits, who first thought of putting it in a pipe.'
Arcon and Aglod looked at one another for a moment, then Aglod lifted his hands to the ceiling and let them drop in a gesture universally understood.
'Smoke-rings,' he said.
In response Gandalf blew a beautiful blue rolling ring that encircled the fretted lamp that hung above their heads.
'Smoke-rings,' the mage replied decisively. 'We can do little till the raven returns, and then I think we must have him flap his way to The Pride of the South and warn Tirandún of how matters stand. Still . . . Adan, why don't you nose about a bit out there, see how the household are taking all the goings on. At this time, a loose tongue could be our greatest enemy.'
'I'll see to it,' the warrior replied, and slipped from the chamber.
Orofacion of the Vanyar started this thread on 12-16-2001 at 07:58 PM. Happy ten years on this story to all who contribute(d)!
From: Virgo Supercluster, 40º N 75º W | Registered: Mar 2006
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It was fifteen years since Ilgimâsh the Blacklock had come seeking his fortune to The City, and for thirteen of those years he had faithfully served Lord Kiblis. He had acquired handsome possessions, rich clothes, a fine house within a luxurious walled garden in the Eighth Ward, well-trained servants. As an uzbas in Umbar he knew that he was both valued and constrained. Instantly recognisable should he try to make off with any of the riches entrusted to him, any dishonest dealings with his Lord's treasury were an impossibility, and Kiblis was open-handed to those who did him good service.
Though he is implacable to those who do him wrong, the dwarf thought to himself as he made his way back to his office after obeying the summons to the council-chamber. The richly-dressed Blacklock stopped for a moment in a window embrasure to collect his thoughts, taking an embroidered kerchief from his waist to wipe the sweat below his turban.
So this is how it ends, he thought, half in fear, half in wonder. Well, I escaped from Nurrikharbhûnd; why not Umbar? The Old Serpent is welcome to it! Maybe I could try Gondor, or the Eastern Kingdoms . . .
But after a moment he shook his head. He might have seen but nine score and seven winters, but he was not the dwarf he had been when he wooed the daughter of old Gargamâsh the jewelsmith, and slew her brother when he discovered them together. It must be a ten-year since he had even picked up an axe. Ruefully, the Blacklock patted the sash, embroidered with golden thread, which encircled his ample belly in the Umbari manner. He admitted to himself that the jewelled dagger thrust through it in its curving sheath was little more than an ornament. Wincing, he recalled the hint of distain in the eyes of that Firebeard warrior he had come across in the Great Bazaar a few days since. Now there was an uzbas who looked like he could handle himself! He was getting soft!
'That will do for today, noble prince,' the old man, his tutor in writing, said as he examined the copy-parchment. 'You have made much progress. Already you form the letters with the beginnings of elegance. I hope the High Priest will allow us time for you to perfect your calligraphy.'
The noon bell sounded in one, then another of The City's towers.
'Will we continue after the mid-day meal, sir?' Tahalian's nephew asked.
'Not today, Prince. His Reverence has some special lesson he wishes to impart to you himself. Take your repast, and go to your exercise in the Inner Garden, as usual. He will meet with you there.'
The nuncheon was, as ever, luxurious, but served to the young man by silent servants in his own quarters. He thought back wistfully for a moment to the friendly, if often paltry meals he used to share with his family and neighbours back home at Irr'd Zamâg up in the Immâth Backlands. Having everything he could want in the way of rich clothes, delicious food, comfortable quarters, obedient servants and so on was not something a boy raised in the poverty he had known was likely to regret, but the 'Old Man' frankly terrified him, and he was not so young as not to know that whatever the reason Utukhân had plucked him from obscurity, it was not for his own benefit.
He was also well aware that whatever had happened to Uncle Tahalian, it was not a random attack by some mysterious assassin, though he kept up that polite fiction in the High Priest's presence. He had only been allowed to visit the Chamber of Succour twice since the attack, and both times Tahalian had conveniently been asleep, and 'unable to be disturbed'.
Resting after a brisk turn or two round the Inner Garden, the young man was seated on a shaded marble bench, wondering with no little apprehension what the day would bring, when he realised that the Old Man was looking down at him, his serpent-headed staff in his hand.
Cursing the mossy paving stones that had deadened the rumour of his approach, he jumped to his feet.
'My duty to you, Reverence!' he exclaimed, 'Forgive me . . I did not hear . . .'
'It is no matter. The day has come, son of Kastamir. The day when your heart will be measured by Our Lord. Come.'
Turning abruptly, the High Priest walked towards the looming golden dome of the Temple. Smoke was rising from the louver that crowned its summit.
The rites of purification had been long, involving much chanting by red-robed acolytes, and the sprinkling of blood not only on the altar but on himself. Edeb-Nargûl had performed most of the ritual - another the youngster from Irr'd Zamâg found terrifying, with his warrior's muscled arms and cold, cold eyes - but now the Old Man was leading him through one of the rear doors of the great dome and towards the base of the Copper Tower, one of three that rose towards the rear of the Temple enclosure, Copper, Brass and Iron, each sheathed in the metal that gave it its name. The almost inconceivable cost of cladding the outer walls of these tall structures in sheets of pure metal might have impressed the mind of the youth, had he any other thought than a nagging fear in the pit of his stomach as to what he might encounter within them, as well as - tiny but present - a breathless excitement that at last he was to be among the very few to learn what secrets they contained.
'Enter, and ascend to the highest level,' Utukhân said as he opened the metal door of the Copper Tower with a key hanging from a chain at his waist.
The small door creaked ominously as it was thrust back, and the young man saw beyond it the bottom of a stone ramp that snaked gradually upwards round the outer wall of the Tower.
A half hour later the youth might have been seen stumbling through the same door, hands clutching at the frame to support his trembling legs, his eyes blank with horror, oblivious to all else around him.
The Old Serpent laid a hand on his shoulder in what elsewhere might have seemed a fatherly gesture.
'What d'ye mean we're to leave?' Panther, new-come from the morning patrol, exclaimed, gaping at Whitey. 'Go? Run away? Jus' like that?'
'S'what the Boxer tol' me; an' goodmate, if he were jesting, I'm an uzbas. Look about ye. The House is in a ferment o' packing, the Old Lord's to address us all in the Hall in a halfhour, an' no-one's allowed to pass the Gate lessen they want t'be bound an' gagged an' thrown in the forget-me-hole.'
'Jus' leave? Outer The City? Leave?' the burly warrior went on, his mouth still gaping.
'Ye're mighty slow in gettin' the concept, Panther, me-laddie-o,' Tiamâl said, coming up behind. 'LEAVE, sithee! Get used t' th'idea! If we don't we gets slaughtered by the Reddies, or inslaved by the Nambóni, or both, an' I'm fixin' on neither happ'nin' t'this House while I still got breath! Now sort yerself out, sharpish-like! I've work fer warriors afore we takes off for Redcastle an' beyond. Ye never thought we'd leave quiet, did ye?'
The old weapons-master twirled his moustache, and shouted with a voice that had carried over many a field of slaughter:
'Renherri! Daboru! To me, sharpish-like! I've work fer ye . . .'
Adanedhel looked on with satisfaction, pressing himself against the wall as one of Lord Azulbâr's secretaries hurried past, his arms laden with documents.
'And you, Dân! To me, sharpish; that pillar'll stand without you prop it, you lazy pillock!'
Adanedhel jerked in surprise and went over willy-nilly to stand before Tiamâl with the others he had summoned.
'Now, my lads,' the weapons-master began, 'we're to leave, as ye now know. But as ye may well think it, there be those, an' not few, who'd keep us nigh, an' that not for our health's sake.'
'It's true, goodmates,' Adan added, 'this is what me and my in-daulu learned, and we warned the Old Lord on it.'
'Aye, aye,' Tiamâl said, 'as ye say, Dân. An' if the Lord an' his nevvy believe ye, I'll not be arguing. The threat's real enuff. The Eighth House, we've got good hope, will be with us, but none else. No surprises there. So it falls to us t'make sure we can leave unmolested-like. An' this be where you sons-of-dogs comes in. There'll be no-one on our tails if there be no ships t'chase us in, what-say-ye? So we makes more than a little certain there be none.'
'I catch your drift, Boxer,' Renherri said with an evil grin. 'Scuttle the whole squadron in the Great Haven that ain't our own? A tall order; but sounds like fun.'
'Ren, me-laddie-oh, ye're a reprobate after me own black heart,' Tiamâl answered, clapping the man on his shoulder with a hand that rocked him where he stood.
'One word, Boxer,' Adan put in. 'There's one ship needs to be spared. Pride of the South. You know her?'
'Aye. Because . . ?'
'Aye,' Adanedhel swallowed. 'She's allied with us, sithee?'
'Mm-hmm,' the old warrior breathed, his eyes narrowed.
Adan had the grace to look embarrassed. Another thing they hadn't chosen to mention to their 'employers'.
Us? Daboru mouthed to Renherri. But the Nambónu never did get an answer.
But even the very wise cannot foresee all ends.
Wise with a serpent's cunning was Utukhân, but in this he was mistaken, that fear would accomplish all that he desired.
An 'example', lifted up by his very entrails upon a bitter spike, should be enough to cow The City, impose the Temple's Peace.
But he was wrong.
Red-clad guards looked north from the Temple's walls, hearing on the wind a rumour echoing down the streets leading from the Third Ward. Tradesmen and beggars streamed in a panicking flock before them as almost the entirety of Lord Kephâd's host pushed roaring into the great square, their master in his chariot little more than a reluctant and apprehensive figurehead.
Unfortunately, the Reddies' had impaled one of the most popular men among them. Unfortunately, his grieving goodmates had drunk themselves into such a state as to be intent on recovering his body and avenging his death. Unfortunately above all for Kephâd himself, his enraged and now uncontrollable warriors had already caught, and killed, three Azassil unlucky enough to be patrolling their streets. Their heads now decorated spears held up as banners at the front of the enraged mob.
The Old Darkness take my soul, Edeb-Nargûl said to himself as he beheld the advancing warriors, if Kephâd's scum do not wish, before this day is out, that each man of them had not been born!
'Some lessons are learned but slowly, it would seem.'
Edeb-Nargûl started to find the High Priest himself suddenly at his elbow. The Old Man gazed down in measureless contempt at the mob below, who were now clumsily removing their comrade from the place of execution, cutting down the shaft on which he had been impaled, and pulling it forth from his dead belly.
'Captain!' Utukhân ordered an azassu behind him, 'Signal to Kaléfi, and turn out the guard to the last man!'
The warrior hastened along the wall-walk to do his bidding.
''Earth-shaker' the Nambóni name their mûmak, as you have doubtless heard, my friend,' he went on, turning to his right-hand man. 'And these fools shall be shaken when he comes among them!'
The ragged charge of Kephâd's men as the bronze doors of the Temple enclosure were thrust back. The screaming and writhing of many in the front ranks as they fell to well-aimed javelins. The futile beating of the half or wholly drunken mob against the lines of well-disciplined Reddies. The final dissolution of the Third House attack as Kaléfi's men took them in the flank, the Nambóni thrusting-spears and hardened war-clubs doing fearful execution among the confused and now panicking warriors. The appearance of Earth-shaker, Akizi fa Bama on his neck, was the last straw, and the Third House men fled in all directions, some west into the streets and alleys of The City, others south towards the bridge over the Barduin, or towards the nearby gate, Lord Kephâd's chariot borne along with them like flotsam in a flood. Fallen men and discarded weapons littered the Great Square, and the Azassunath, their blood up, followed on the heels of the fleeing men, slaying at will.