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Perversely, the long climb back to the Steward’s House at the pinnacle of the city reinvigorated Imrahil’s mind, and he slept fitfully. After a few hours he slipped out of bed, pulled on his tunic and cloak, and went in search of the open air.
Dawn was still far off. The wind in the mountains was crisp and clean, rushing down into the valley. The sky was clear and glowing with stars, casting everything in a silvery blue light. But as he approached the edge of the courtyard to look out over the expanse of the city, Imrahil was surprised to find that he was not alone.
“Sleep eludes you as well?” Faramir smiled.
“It must be all the excitement,” Imrahil said, leaning on the wall beside his nephew. The intriguing sounds of Dwarvish tools echoed far below, though all curious glances were foiled by a vast shroud of tent cloth illuminated by the small dancing lights of their work lanterns. “I feel I am living my old nurse’s stories.”
“Stories you eventually told to us.”
“I am certain I did not do them justice,” Imrahil confessed. “Perhaps the experience is already familiar to you who enjoy the enviable company of your new neighbors.”
“Perhaps ‘familiar’ is not quite the appropriate word,” Faramir said, “but I have certainly grown to appreciate the Elves’ presence here. I hope I do not live to see them leave us.”
“I hear you have finally finished rebuilding in Emyn Arnen.”
“It was fortunate the essential structures were largely intact, especially since every stonemason in the country has been sorely overworked since the war. It is nothing beside Minas Tirith, but our little palace is grand enough for us. You must come see it before you return to Belfalas. And while you are there, you must see Legolas’ house as well. It is true that these silvan Elves dislike stonework, but they can bend and shape wood to any purpose imaginable. Their carpentry is so precise that hardly a nail was required, and the whole structure looks as if it might have simply grown from the hillside.”
“There has been no trouble cleansing the place?”
“As I say, Legolas has that process well in hand,” Faramir assured him. “I do as I am told and all ends well. Ithilien is a magical place now, and I will be very happy to raise my children there.”
“I do envy you that,” Imrahil smiled. “I hope we shall all have peace enough for you to enjoy these coming years. That, of course, brings me to less pleasant matters. I have not yet had occasion to discuss it with the King, but perhaps you can tell me what truth there is in these rumors about Khand.”
Faramir sighed heavily. “Karzik has actually sent an emissary to Elessar. He is better mannered than any of us expected of a Variag, but it is clear that they have designs on Harondor. Elessar is not likely to cede it to them, and I suspect the emissary's true purpose is to gauge Gondor’s readiness to wage war. They have managed to seize everything in Harad, but surely even Karzik must hesitate before risking everything for a barren waste like Harandor.”
“We can only hope,” Imrahil agreed. “I certainly have no desire to shed blood for it, but I would not have Gondor diminished nor the King shamed.”
They were both distracted then by the faint sound of song on the air. Imrahil glanced down at the stables below, certain he recognized the voice. “There,” he said, pointing out the figure on the street. “It is Thranduil.”
Faramir laughed quietly. “Six years ago you knew nothing about him, and now you are utterly fascinated.”
“Six years ago he was nothing but an obscure name in the chronicles of Isildur, and now he is here, walking our streets,” Imrahil insisted, unashamed of his enthusiasm. “Lord Elrond and the others stayed too briefly for me to properly appreciate them. I sincerely hope Thranduil is in no hurry to return to the north.”
The Elvenking seemed not to notice them. He had clearly been to visit his horses, and perhaps that was all the rest he required. He lingered at the wall now, as they did, taking in the moonlit view. One could almost see the whole region from that height -- especially if one was blessed with Elven sight -- the city, the Pelannor, Osgiliath, Ithilien, and the black mountains of the conquered and gutted land of Mordor. Those peaks were quiet now, but no less imposing. Imrahil wondered what Thranduil might be thinking as he looked out over that landscape. Was he remembering the last time he had seen those mountains, three thousand years before?
Faramir prodded him in the ribs, interrupting his aimless thoughts. In a moment Imrahil saw what had alarmed him. A gang of young stable hands had gathered ominously in the shadows, and now they rushed the Elvenking with cudgels before either Faramir or Imrahil could shout a warning.
Thranduil was uncharacteristically unarmed, but that seemed to make no difference. He spun around, slamming the first of his assailants into the ground without breaking the force of the charge, and then proceeded to soundly beat the others with the handle of the hayfork they had intended to use against him. The whole fracas was over in seconds.
Imrahil and Faramir ran headlong through the gate, proceeded by two of the guards on duty there. Thranduil stood unharmed and unconcerned amid a minor scene of bloody devastation as they approached, and he readily surrendered the hayfork to the soldiers. It would have been laughable had not the indignity been so horrifying.
“They will live,” the Elvenking said, “although I confess I may have ruined some noses and broken a few teeth.”
“That will surely be the least of their troubles!” Imrahil insisted as the guards gathered the five dazed young men from the pavement. “In the morning they will know the King’s judgement.”
Thranduil frowned. “I would not have Elessar judge them too harshly,” he said. “They are young and foolish, and by the smell of them I suspect this ridiculous plot was hatched in a tavern. I was in no danger.”
“Perhaps not, my lord,” Imrahil said, “but I do not expect Elessar to tolerate such heinous attacks upon his guests, however ill-conceived.”
Falathar was uncomfortable in the city. He did not like to be so far removed from the seat of his influence, nor quite so near the King’s. There was a fluttering unease in the back of his mind, as if he had already jumped and it remained to be seen whether he would land on his feet. He must not dwell upon it. He had everything to lose.
As much as he would have liked to be in bed, he had business to conduct. There was no better time than the present when most of the rest of the population had exhausted themselves and prying eyes were few. His quarry waited for him in the shadows behind the inn on Rath Celerdain, an imposing figure of a man, thick and broad with a great mane of dark hair tied behind his shoulders. He had the air of a savage who, although he had recently acquired the civility expected of refined societies, had lost none of his brutality. He was the only Variag in Gondor, Gustîg, the emissary from Khand. If Falathar had been a proper Gondorian lord, they would have been little better than strangers. Instead, they were already far more familiar than Falathar would have anyone know.
Gustîg smiled grimly as Falathar approached. “How easily the traitor is concealed in this crowd,” he said in his conspicuous Southron accent. “I trust you have not forgotten your pledges to my master. One could almost forgive you for thinking better of this mad plot of yours when one considers the wrath of Elessar if you are discovered.”
“I do not fear Elessar,” Falathar insisted, which was a blatant lie. He did not respect Elessar, or Thorongil, or Aragorn, or whatever he called himself from day to day, but he did fear him. “He is only a man. One could almost have forgiven you and your lord if you had despaired when the Dark Tower fell. It is no small thing to choose the wrong gods.”
Gustîg shrugged, the starlight glinting on the chain and large crystal pendant on his chest. “We need no gods now.”
It was difficult to argue the point, considering their lightning conquest of the south. It was little wonder that Karzik and his compatriots considered themselves invincible. They had survived when Sauron had not, and now flourished amid the debris of Mordor’s fall. Elessar had been content to simply observe as the diverse tribes of Haradrim fought among themselves. Now the fighting was over and the Variags had taken everything. Their victorious armies were looking to the north, and Gondor faced a rival power.
“Elessar will never let you take Harondor, you know,” Falathar said. “He is too proud to allow it.”
“He may yet,” Gustîg mused, apparently unconcerned, “if his own house is in disorder. You will see to that, of course.”
“My purposes are my own,” Falathar insisted. “You will remind Karzik that I am no tool of his.”
“As you value your daughter’s well-being, you will not utter his name with such contempt again,” Gustîg growled.
Falathar bit his tongue and fumed. He was being squeezed on both sides. He knew his son-in-law well enough to know that the Lord of Khand would not hesitate to throw him to Elessar out of spite if he began refusing their illicit privileges and illegal commerce through Pelargir. This venture must succeed or the dance would truly be over.
Gustîg seemed to recognize his difficulties. “Put your son on the steward’s seat,” he said, almost reassuringly. “End this trouble for all of us, and things can be as they were before.”
Falathar’s mouth twisted into an obscene distortion of a smile. How easily that barbarian said it. Although he had already decided upon this course of action himself, he could not help resenting how little the Variags considered the blood which must be spilt to accomplish that end. “It will be done,” he said grimly. The pieces were already in motion. “I trust Karzik remembers his obligations to me.”
Gustîg glowered at him, probably considering any obligations to be beneath his master’s dignity. “He does.”
Doubtless Fíriel had seen to that. Falathar’s daughter had always been proud, and devoted to her family above all else. Whatever others may say, she had not been given to Karzik against her will, and she knew how to manage her unruly husband, at least insofar as he could be managed by anyone. She tolerated his harem and his other intemperances with a queen’s grace, and was rewarded with his loyalty and even a certain amount of respect. She would see to it that her father was given sanctuary in the south should everything else go wrong.
What a miserable prospect that was. It would not, must not go wrong.
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