Summary: Sauron is afraid of his greatest enemy and is willing to use all resources to stop him.
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of the recognizable characters or places. The story is written only for enjoyment.
A/N: I tried to fit this inside the book canon, but I am not sure if I succeeded. Feel free to consider the story AU if you wish.
A/N 2: Some habits and ideas among the Haradrim are my own creation. You are welcome to use them in your own stories, but be aware that they are not canonical.
March 8, 3019 T.A.
Mus’ab stopped in his tracks and whirled around, glaring at the newcomer. His frown only deepened as he recognized the man. “Why are you following me?” he asked, rather curtly.
Not a muscle moved on the younger man’s face. “I did not follow you,” he replied calmly. “Lord Bakr summoned me and I come.”
Mus’ab stared at the man, silently absorbing the information. Lord Bakr had summoned Adnan too? Adnan was the best spy under his lord’s command; apart from himself, of course. If they were both needed, then the matter was of unmatched importance.
The two men walked forward, both unwilling to speak more. It was likely that they would be sent on different missions, and each would be forbidden to talk to the other about his task.
The large door opened and Lord Bakr stood before them in all his magnificence. Dressed in fine purple silk and gold, the prince shone like a monument of the old glory, before the times when their honour and prosperity had been ripped away from them. Both Mus’ab and Adnan fell to their knees and bowed low, until their foreheads touched the thick carpet.
“I am pleased that you answered my summons so soon,” Bakr said, and his voice was grave. “I fear I heard troubling news this morning, my loyal servants. I spoke to the Lord Sauron.” Both men, who had now partly risen, bowed their heads in respect at the name. “He has been contacted through the Seeing Stone,” Bakr continued.
“Saruman?” Mus’ab whispered knowingly. Very few of the Haradrim serving Lord Sauron were familiar with the strange connection between the two Maiar, but Mus’ab knew of the affairs of state better than any of his kinsmen.
Bakr shook his head. “It seems the other Seeing Stone is no longer in possession of the wizard. Our Lord has been contacted by the Enemy.”
“The Enemy?” Mus’ab murmured, confused. The Enemy could only mean Gondor. And Gondor was represented by Denethor, but the Steward had been in possession of a Seeing Stone for a long time. He had been influenced by Sauron, without realizing it, and Mus’ab could not imagine that Denethor was strong enough to stand up to his Lord and call him. No, Lord Bakr was speaking of something else. Or someone else.
“The Enemy,” Bakr repeated, this time strangely stressing the words. “Isildur’s heir. Long has our Lord suspected that the last of the line of Kings had survived and would one day face him, and now this day has come. The man has revealed himself and openly challenged Sauron.”
“Then he must be a fool!” Adnan spat.
Bakr looked at him sternly. “A fool he may be, but the true fools will be us if we do not heed the warning and act quickly.”
The words were passing by Mus’ab’s mind as if they were mere whispers in the wind. The blood was rushing through his head, leaving him dizzy. Isildur’s heir! He knew history well. A long time ago his people had lived in peace of prosperity under the service and protection of Lord Sauron. But one day the peace had been broken. Men of the West had allied themselves with the Elves and had marched to the Black Gate, attacking their master. Unprovoked. They had been the ones who had broken the peace first. They had been the ones who had been unhappy with what they had, and had lusted after more lands and property.
The Lord Sauron had been wise and powerful, and those pitiful fools had had no chance of opposing him. Surely, the battle would have been won easily and the absurd war would have been quickly forgotten, if not for Isildur. Isildur had stolen their master’s most powerful weapon, and thus the scales of power had turned.
Harad was never again restored to its former glory. His people were forced to stay in the deserts, and were refused many goods that had been freely accessible to them before. He himself could hardly complain – as one of his lord’s best spies, he was given wealth and privileges, but most of his people were not as fortunate. One could survive in the desert, but one could hardly live well. They were not self-sufficient, and there were many goods their own land could never give them. They needed to trade, but their relations with the western lands were poor.
But, worst of all, they were stripped of their dignity. Once it had been an honour to serve under Sauron, and now they were scorned and condemned. And it was all because of one man. A man, whose heir still lived, and just like his ancestor, was planning to come and shatter their peace.
“What do you mean to do?” he asked, stunned.
“There is only one thing that we can do,” said Bakr. “Our Lord is powerful, and our victory is indisputable. And yet, we cannot take any unnecessary risks. Isildur’s heir cannot be left alive.”
Mus’ab felt his heart fill up with pride. His master was planning to assassinate Isildur’s heir, and it seemed that he had been chosen for the task. This was an event of historical importance; an event, that could very well decide the victor in this war; an event, that would be portrayed in bards’ songs for centuries to come. And he, Mus’ab, was chosen to deal the final blow, to put an end to a line of men, who had caused his people so much suffering. For a moment, he felt all powerful, as if the whole world was in his hands, and all men, orcs and elves were mere pawns for him to play with.
This would bring such unimaginable honour to his house! He could be given a noble’s title, and May could one day marry a prince! For a moment, an image of his little girl, grown up and dressed in finest gowns, sitting on a high throne and surrounded by bowing servants, came to his mind, and a great warmth spread through his heart. He had fought for his home for many years, and had accomplished great deeds, deeds that were above most men’s abilities. And it would finally all pay back. His skills were recognized, and he was now chosen to accomplish a task, that would change the world and the balance of power forever.
“He was in Rohan, in the Hornburg, when he challenged our master,” Bakr continued. “But Lord Sauron believes that Isildur’s heir is aware of our plans to attack Minas Tirith, and is now heading there. We cannot know for sure, and this is why I have summoned you both. One of you will travel to Rohan, and the other to Gondor. One of you must find him and kill him.”
“Then may I be the one to go to Minas Tirith, my lord?” Mus’ab said quickly.
“Why would you request that?” Bakr asked.
Mus’ab tried to calm himself, fearful that he had shown too much of his excitement. “Because I believe that he will more likely be there.”
Bakr smiled at his man’s obvious eagerness to complete the task. “Very well. You must leave soon. The road will take you less than a week. If you prepare swiftly and take a horse, you might arrive even before Lord Sauron’s troops. But remember one thing – if you arrive before the battle has finished, do not join the fight. Stay aside. You are needed alive for a greater purpose. Our forces are strong and will most likely win, and then they will capture and kill our enemy, but we cannot take any chances. If anything goes wrong, you have to find Isildur’s heir after the battle and finish him yourself.”
Mixed feelings fought in Mus’ab’s heart. Of course, he wanted their forces to achieve an easy victory and to leave no one get away. And yet, in a secret corner of his heart, he hoped that somehow they would fail, and that it would be up to him to destroy their enemy and decide the end of the war. He did not want anyone to steal this duty from him. It was his by all rights. “You do not want him alive, my lord?” he asked. Truth be told, he wished his enemy to suffer and pay for his ancestor’s deeds, but if his lord wanted a quick kill, he could do that.
Bakr shook his head. “There is no time for this. Our master wishes to win this war as soon as we can, and he cannot afford himself the luxury to play games. Kill him swiftly and return. There will be great rewards waiting for you when you come back.”
Mus’ab smiled. He had been given many missions like this one in the past, and he had never failed.
The door burst open before him, and a little girl rushed forward. Mus’ab knelt and allowed the child to wrap her arms around his neck. “Papa, you are back!” the girl squealed in delight. “What did lord Bakr say?”
The man pulled back and regarded his daughter in amazement. May was growing more beautiful every day. Her hair was long, smooth, and shining like a raven’s wing, and her eyes were large and round, and darker than an olive, bathed in sunrays. She was only nine years of age, but she would grow and blossom into a flower, worthy of any prince’s court.
Mus’ab sighed, gently caressing the child’s hair. His daughter could never marry a prince; not with their family’s status. But that would all change after he returned. Nobility in Harad was determined not only by blood ties, but also by great deeds. And after he accomplished the greatest deed of all, May and he would be counted among the most noble ones.
“I fear I have to leave you again, my little princess,” he said, and the girl smiled, like every time when he called her that. “But when I return, I will bring us great renown.”
“Then go, papa,” May said. “Go and make me proud.”
The man smiled. His frequent absences saddened the girl, but she never showed it. She always understood the need to go. May was his only family, after his wife had died in childbirth. He had feared that it would be hard for a lone man to raise a child, but lord Bakr had not left his loyal servant fight this battle alone. His good prince had sent maids to help him throughout the years, and even sometimes took the child in his own court when Mus’ab was away on a mission. This was one of the many things that strengthened Mus’ab’s love and loyalty to his lord.
The man stood up and walked inside to prepare his things. His opened a large wardrobe and rummaged inside. The first thing he took out was a wig with long, blond hair. Mus’ab caressed it reverently. It had been made years ago, from the hairs of three unfortunate Rohirrim, who had met an untimely end. If he remembered correctly, one of them had been a woman. Next, he took out two narrow strands of very short, blond hair, each as long as a thumb. A shaving knife, a mirror, a bar of soap, two jars. Then Mus’ab opened the other wing of the wardrobe. Strange clothes lay there, neatly folded and placed on wooden shelves. Mus’ab selected several sets and then moved to the most important part.
On the top shelf stood two rather small bags. One was made of silk, and one of cotton. His fingers traced the silken one almost lovingly. He knew very well each of the items inside.
A dagger. But not any dagger. The blade was masterfully made, and the handle was golden, richly decorated with bright gems, and ornaments made of a Mûmak’s trunk. No king deserved to die as a beggar. This was why whenever Mus’ab was sent to slit the throat of someone of noble blood, he used this blade. Many leaders of men had fallen under it. It was a blade worthy to kill a king.
A long string, made of finest, blood-red silk. In spite of what those who knew him believed, Mus’ab did not like to stain his hands with blood. He much preferred to surprise his target from behind, to wind the string around his throat, and to pull it tightly until the victim would slide lifeless to the ground. Clean and quiet, no blood, no sound. Mus’ab imagined the smooth texture of the string under his fingertips. Indeed, a murder that would fit the greatest of leaders.
A small crystal vial. It contained a poison, transparent and odorless, that worked swiftly and painlessly. The victim would die before realizing that something was wrong. Mus’ab smiled. This was surely his preferred way to end one’s life.
Which item of the three he would use would depend on the situation. He was a practical man and would always choose one that would work the best. But not every target deserved such an honourable death. In fact, very few did.
In the other bag, Mus’ab carried the same three items, and yet not quite. Again there was a dagger, but it was simple and undecorated, secured in a plain scabbard. There was a string, but it was made of a rough cord. There was a vial, but it was made of glass, and the poison inside killed slowly and painfully, leaving the poor victim no dignity before the end.
Only after meeting Isildur’s heir, Mus’ab would decide which of the two bags he would need.
March 14, 3019 T.A.
Mus’ab knew that he would reach the Pelennor fields tonight if he rode hard, but there was no need to hurry. Perhaps Sauron’s main forces had not reached Minas Tirith yet, and there was no point in arriving before or even during the battle. He had plenty of time and he would use it well.
The man commanded his horse to stop and dismounted. They had reached a small clearing in the forest, next to a narrow spring. The place was as good as any. Mus’ab tied his steed to a tree and started preparing for the days to come.
First, he took out his dagger and soon strands of long, dark hair started falling on the fresh grass. After he had cut as much as he could, Mus’ab walked to the spring and splashed water onto his head. Then he soaped it carefully and shaved off whatever was left. This was his least liked part of his work, but his hair would grow back, and in this way the wig would fit better.
Oh no, this was not his least liked part. The worst part was only coming. With a groan, Mus’ab took out a small, evil-looking metal devise and started carefully plucking out every single hair of his eyebrows. As much as he hated it, it would do him no good to have blond hair and dark eyebrows. His eyes were filled with tears and he sneezed several times before he was done, but soon the last hair was out and he sighed in relief.
Mus’ab looked at his reflection in the mirror and resisted the urge to wince. Every time he did this, he was grateful that there was no one around. He looked ridiculous with no hair at all on his face. Then he opened one of the jars he had brought and started applying pale powder evenly to his face and neck. Thankfully, his complexion was not very dark and could even pass for suntan, but some powder here and there could never hurt. He was from the northern part of his land, or what Gondor liked to call “Near Harad”. His lips twisted in contempt as he considered the arrogance of the men of the west. Those fools liked to name everything according to where it was in respect to their own lands, as if they were the very center of Middle-earth! He doubted that any of the man living in the southern parts of his country would call their homes “Far Harad”. But it matter not, soon Gondor would pay for all their arrogance.
After he was done with the powder, Mus’ab closed the jar and opened the other one. It contained a strange substance that he had discovered years ago. He applied it to where his eyebrows had been, and then placed on top of it the two strips of short blond hair that he had brought along. They stuck to his face as if they belonged there. After he put on his wig, Mus’ab looked like a true Rohirrim, and he proceeded to dressing as one. As a final touch, he put on his leather gloves to hide the darker skin of his hands. Applying the powder would do no good there since he used his hands a lot, and it was likely to fall off.
And then, the metamorphosis was complete. He was Mus’ab no longer. Now he was Dernwine, son of Fulgrim. Now he was the man, who would assassinate Isildur’s heir.
March 15, 3019 T.A.
Mus’ab surveyed the battlefield in dismay. He could not believe that Lord Sauron’s forces had been defeated. Things were not supposed to happen this way, but the current events made his mission even more important. If Isildur’s hair had survived this battle, he had to die before he was given the opportunity to challenge Sauron again.
The fields were a rush of activity. People were chaotically running around, looking for survivors. Some had started to gather the bodies of the dead and carry them away in stretchers, so that they would be buried with proper respect. Ire rose in Mus’ab’s heart as he watched how only the victors’ dead and wounded were taken care of, while many of his own kinsmen were lying on the ground unattended.
As his eyes traveled across the field, a strange sight riveted his gaze. Two beings, tall and slender, perfect like marble statues and alike in looks and bearing, were wandering through the fields, looking around worriedly. Mus’ab had had few dealings with the Elves, but there was one thing he knew –Legends told that one Isildur’s distant ancestors had been an Elf and the man had been closely associated with those strange creatures. Then perhaps his heir would do the same.
Taking a deep breath, Mus’ab walked towards the fair beings. He had to admit that he had rarely been so unconfident. On his various missions he had fooled many Men, but Elves were unpredictable and their senses worked differently. He was unsure what to expect, but if he was to accomplish his task, he had to take risks.
“May I help you, my lords?” he asked as he reached the pair, perfectly imitating the Rohirric accent of the Common tongue.
One of the Elves looked up and regarded the man with a calm, fixed stare. Mus’ab resisted the urge to tremble in fear. He had the feeling that the penetrating silver gaze reached the very depths of his soul, rummaging inside of him and digging out every little secret, every hidden thought that he had ever had. The elf opened his mouth to speak, and the man thought that the fair being would say aloud the truth about who he was and why he was there. “We are looking for Lord Aragorn,” the elf said instead. “Have you seen him?”
Mus’ab’s heart leapt up inside his chest. He had been instructed well and he knew that name. “I have not, but I will gladly help you. The men in my éored will be happy to hear news of the lord’s wellbeing.” He could only assume that most of the Rohirrim knew who Aragorn was. Judging by the elf’s question, the guess seemed reasonable.
“Then you will be glad to hear that he was unharmed,” the other elf said, and Mus’ab observed in amazement that not only their faces, but their voices too were completely identical. “We have seen him after the battle and know that he is well. We only wish to bring him some news.”
There was a strange sadness in the fair being’s voice, but Mus’ab chose to ignore it. He focused on the new information instead. Isildur’s heir was alive and well! So his trip here had not been in vain and he would indeed be given the chance to deliver the final blow! He could barely fight the wave of excitement that rushed through his blood.
“I am happy to hear that he is well,” he said, and it was not entirely a lie. “But still I would like to join your search if you would let me. Three pairs of eyes are better than two.”
If the elves were surprised that the man would help them instead of taking care of the bodies of his fallen comrades, they did not show it. Instead, they simply voiced their gratitude and silently continued their search.
Suddenly, both elves froze in their tracks in unison, and then nearly ran forward. Mus’ab followed them, his heart beating wildly. Was he so close to his enemy?
As they approached their destination, Mus’ab was overtaken by a mixture of disappointment and newly awoken curiosity. It was not a man that his companions had seen, but another Elf, this one golden-haired. Next to him walked a strange, short being. The man stifled a gasp. He had never seen a Dwarf before! He was sent out to murder a man, who had walked out of legend, and now he was surrounded by these unusual beings. What other wonders would this mission reveal to him?
The golden-haired elf stared at him for a second, and once again Mus’ab felt unsettled by the piercing gaze. But then one of his companions decided to save him the discomfort and hurried to introduce him.
“Legolas, Gimli, this is-” the elf paused and looked at him expectantly.
“Dernwine, son of Fulgrim,” Mus’ab supplied quickly.
“Dernwine, son of Fulgrim,” the elf repeated. “He was helping us.”
Legolas nodded absent-mindedly and anxiously scanned the other elves’ faces. The twins, and they were indeed twins if Mus’ab had guessed correctly, looked at each other hesitantly, as if each was prompting the other to speak.
“What happened?” Legolas asked softly. “Did you find Halbarad?”
The twins looked down. “Alas! We did!” one of them murmured.
The elf and dwarf stared at them for a second, before they seemed to realize what their friends were telling them. “No… please, no,” Legolas whispered, and the dwarf’s face twisted in pain. The twins nodded mutely, and Legolas bowed his head.
Mus’ab’s heart was filled with grim satisfaction. It was good to see that this war was bringing pain not only to his people, but to their enemies too. Let them suffer! They had brought this upon themselves. It felt good to know that their loved ones died too, and that they too felt grief. It was only fair.
“We have to tell Estel,” one of the twins said and his voice was laden with pain.
Estel. Mus’ab had not heard the name before, but he had a good guess whom they were talking about. He memorized it and added it to the information he already knew.
Legolas nodded. “I know. I wished he was spared this hurt now that he has so many burdens upon his shoulders, but he would wish to know of his cousin’s fate as soon as possible.”
His cousin! Things were better than anything Mus’ab had hoped for! If it was for him to decide, he would have killed his enemy slowly and painfully; he would have brought him to Barad-dûr and let Sauron inflict on him hurts that were beyond any human’s imagination. But he knew that time was not on their side and Isildur’s heir had to be finished quickly. He had accepted this, but now fate was smiling at him. After all, it seemed that the man would have to suffer the death of a loved one before his own death was dealt. Mus’ab could barely suppress his smile.
“Do you know where he is?” one of the twins asked.
“He rode to the Gate with Éomer and Prince Imrahil,” the dwarf, Gimli, replied. “But we do not think he entered the City. He told us that he feared Denethor’s reaction to his return and that he wished to avoid all conflicts before the real enemy is defeated.”
Mus’ab listened with interest. He had to admit that his enemy’s reasoning was sound. Sauron knew well what was happening in the Steward’s mind and had shared his observations with Lord Bakr, who had in turn shared them with Mus’ab. He did not know how, but Isildur’s heir had judged Denethor’s personality very well – the Steward would not rejoice the return of the King.
There was something else that caught the Haradrim’s attention – Isildur’s heir was willing to put his rightful claims aside in order to unite all of Sauron’s enemies to fight against Mordor. Lord Bakr was correct – this man was dangerous and they had to stop him soon.
The three elves and the dwarf walked towards the gates, and Mus’ab silently followed. Everyone seemed intent on the grim task ahead, and none of the four companions seemed to pay him any mind, for which he was grateful.
Finally, they reached the Gate and stopped indecisively. Several tents were raised before the city walls, and a couple of dark-haired men were wandering around, setting up the camp. The elves exchanged a glance.
“Should we all go?” Gimli asked softly.
One of the twins sighed. “We knew Halbarad better and for a longer time,” he said. “Perhaps we should go first.”
“Very well,” said Legolas with a nod. “Gimli and I will be here if he needs us.”
Mus’ab felt a tight knot form inside his stomach. Isildur’s heir was in one of those tents! The man he had heard so much about, the man, on whom so much depended, the man, who could singlehandedly influence the outcome of this war, was so close… so close that he could rush forward and plunge his dagger into the villain’s heart!
But not yet! Patience! If he acted rashly, he could be stopped before his deed was accomplished, and then his master and his people would have to pay for his foolishness. Besides, this was not supposed to be a suicide mission. He would kill his target quietly and then walk away, return home and enjoy his honour.
The twins entered the tallest of the tents and disappeared from sight. The elf and dwarf stood there, staring at the tent’s entrance, neither muttering a word.
Mus’ab did not know how much time had passed when one of the twins exited the tent and walked towards them. Gimli and Legolas seemed ready to burst with anticipation, and yet they waited for the dark-haired elf to speak.
“He wants to see the body,” the twin said. “Come, my friends. He will need us all.”
The elf and the dwarf walked towards the tent, but Mus’ab stood where he was, unwilling to look suspicious. Soon the other twin walked out of the tent, followed by a man.
The spy tried to stifle a gasp. So this was him. This was the man he was trying so hard to find and destroy. This was the only threat to Sauron’s supremacy. This was the last living heir of Kings, the one who could unite Gondor and the northern land of Arnor under one banner, one ruler, one goal… one goal – to destroy their enemies, which were Sauron and all of his allies – the Corsairs of Umbar, the Easterlings, the men of Khand and, of course, his own people, the people of Harad.
But was this a king? True, he was standing tall and proud, his face was noble and fair, and his grey gaze was clear and sharp, but… his clothes… Mus’ab frowned. He was dressed as a mere warrior, no, worse! The clothes were well made, but they had seen many winters, and many summers, and many lands, and many stains, and many washings, and many tears, and many sewings… the assassin’s lip twisted in contempt.
For a moment he remembered his own master, the good and just lord Bakr. He remembered the man’s robes of finest silk, embroidered with gold, his always freshly washed and neatly combed hair, his smooth and perfect skin, nurtured with essential oils from the fruits of the desert, his clean and trimmed nails. This was what a ruler had to look like, and not like a beggar! No, this was no king. And he would not die as a king. Mus’ab’s hand unconsciously moved to the left side of his belt, where a pouch made of cotton hung.
Still, the spy had to admit that it made sense. This man had spent so many years hiding from Sauron, and he had chosen to appear as a mere ranger to remain invisible. He was a coward then. Mus’ab’s disdain was only increasing, when he realized that something did not fit. If Isildur’s heir was indeed a coward, then why had he revealed himself to Sauron in the Seeing Stone? Because he is an arrogant fool, was the first thought that passed through Mus’ab’s mind. But if this was so, then why had he waited for so long? If he was indeed so arrogant and believed that he had the strength to challenge Sauron, then why had he spent so many years in hiding?
Mus’ab had the terrible feeling that something was wrong. The only possible explanation for the man’s behavior was that he knew something that Sauron did not and was playing a game that they could not yet understand. The spy disliked the idea tremendously, but it gave him an even better reason to finish the man quickly.
Isildur’s heir was talking to the elves and the dwarf, but Mus’ab was too far away to hear. Then the strange company walked in his direction. The spy looked around nervously. Now that the twins had found who they were looking for, he had no reason to accompany them. He could not just stand there! He had to find a way to look inconspicuous. Mus’ab looked around – men of Rohan and Gondor were tending to their fallen companions. He could easily fit in the picture. The Haradrim knelt down, next to the body of a dead Rohirric warrior, whose eyes were still open, staring unseeing into the sky. Mus’ab closed the eyes with an expert moved – how many dead men’s eyes had he closed? Then he slowly drew a circle with his hand over the dead man’s chest, the circle of renewal, symbolizing that everything that had a beginning, had an end, and that men died only to be replaced by their son, who would take their fathers’ places in the cycle of life. The circle would guide the man’s path from this world to the next.
Suddenly, Mus’ab felt someone’s gaze upon him. He looked up, and his heart skipped a beat. His eyes locked with his enemy’s, and for a moment he was reminded of the first time he was scrutinized by one of the twins. The grey gaze was steady and unflinching and seemed to penetrate his soul.
Then Isildur’s heir smiled slightly, not the way one smiled to greet another, but rather in the way one smiled at a private thought. The ranger nodded at him and Mus’ab looked down, afraid that his eyes would reveal something.
“Aragorn! Wait!” Everybody turned at the voice, and Mus’ab felt his amazement only rise. He had seen elves and dwarves, he had seen his greatest enemy, and now this. He had never met an Istar before, but he had no doubt that the newcomer was no simple man. Before him stood a wizard as powerful as Saruman, or perhaps more.
“What is it, Gandalf?” Isildur’s heir asked, and there were tiredness and sorrow in his voice.
“Come with me, we shall talk on the way. Time is short,” the wizard said urgently.
The golden-haired elf gazed between the man and the Maia and stepped forward. “Gandalf, now is not the time-” he started, but the wizard interrupted him with a raised hand.
“I can see that,” he said sadly. “But there is time to grieve, and it is not now. You have to come with me to the City, Aragorn. The Steward’s life is in danger.”
“Denethor?” Isildur’s heir gasped, but the wizard shook his head.
“Denethor is dead. It is his son, Faramir, who is Steward now, and he is dying.”
Mus’ab moved to the next body and closed the dead man’s eyes. He wondered how long he could continue this before he would start looking suspicious, but it seemed that everyone was too absorbed by their own worries to pay him any heed. Thoughts were running wildly through his mind. Denethor was dead! So this battle had not been in vain after all! The Steward’s firstborn son had died recently, and his younger son was apparently at death’s door. When he killed the future King, Gondor would be left leaderless! No one could challenge Sauron then!
“He was touched by the Black Breath,” Gandalf continued after his words had sunk in. “And it is not only him. Many warriors of Gondor had fallen under this malady, and the brave lady Éowyn and our friend Merry are among the stricken!”
The company looked crestfallen at the news. After a brief shocked silence, the ranger spoke first. “What would you have me do, Gandalf? Are there no healers in Minas Tirith?”
“They have done what they can, my friend. Only the hands of a king can help them now. They need a King, Aragorn!”
Isildur’s heir was silent, and his features were twisted as if in pain. For a moment, Mus’ab was certain that he would refuse. And then, all of a sudden, his face cleared and it seemed that a great burden had fallen off his shoulders.
“Then they will have a King,” he said, and his voice was strong and confident.
Mus’ab forgot what he was pretending to be doing and stared at his enemy in amazement. There was an air of nobility surrounding the man, and his eyes were shining with a new light. And then Mus’ab could see the travel-worn clothes no longer, blinded by something else.
His hand wandered unconsciously to the right side of his belt, where the silken pouch hung.
March 19, 3019 T.A.
It had been decided that the assembled army of men would march to the Black Gate, and this was their second day on the road. Mus’ab could not imagine how such a pitiful company could hope to challenge his lord, and he wondered if he should be amazed at their stupidity or worried. He had the strange feeling that there was some grander scheme that escaped him, but for now the best he could do was continue to watch his target closely and wait for an opportunity to strike. He was certain that whatever their enemies were plotting, all schemes would end with their leader’s death.
Mus’ab was still uncertain what set of weapons he would use. Isildur’s heir was far away from his image of a perfect leader, and yet he had carefully observed the man’s interaction with those who followed him in this battle, and the son of Kings seemed to inspire loyalty and respect. And Mus’ab knew that as important as appearance was for a great lord, there were still things that mattered more.
The spy was no fool. If an opportunity to act presented itself, he would not hesitate to use it only because he had not decided what set of weapons to use. If such a chance would arise before he had made a final decision, he would use the weapons in the silken bag – if the man had given him some doubts, than he did deserve some respect, so this was the safer choice. But no opportunities had been gifted to him until now. Isildur’s heir had always been surrounded by either the elves and the dwarf, or the grim-faced men of the north, or both, and he had been unable to approach him unnoticed.
When darkness fell, the army stopped to rest, and Mus’ab set to prepare his bedroll. As he knelt down, he felt a gaze upon his back. The man had learned long ago to be ever cautious and suspicious and turned around. To his shock, it was his enemy, Isildur’s heir, looking at him.
The man regarded him silently for a moment, before he spoke. “What is your name, friend?” Aragorn asked.
Mus’ab swallowed hard, his month suddenly going dry. “Dernwine, my lord,” he murmured.
The man’s eyes glistened, as if in amusement, which unsettled Mus’ab.
“Dernwine,” Isildur’s heir repeated, thoughtfully pronouncing the name, as if testing how it sounded. “You are a long way from home.”
Mus’ab froze. What was that supposed to mean? To this man, he was one of the Rohirrim, or so he hoped. True, Rohan was not close, but neither was it far. Could Aragorn have meant Rohan when he spoke of home? Mus’ab could see no other option, and yet, why would he state the obvious?
“We all are,” the spy managed to utter and the twinkle in the uncrowned king’s eyes grew brighter and his lips curved into a slight smile. He nodded at Mus’ab and disappeared, leaving the assassin staring after him in wonder and worry.
March 23, 3019 T.A.
It was their fourth day from the Cross-roads and sixth after they had left Minas Tirith when they came to the last of the living lands and reached the desolation before the gates of the Pass of Cirith Gorgor. In a day or two they would reach the Black Gate, and Mus’ab knew that he had to act before that. Isildur’s heir’s demise seemed certain as things were, but the assassin wanted to make sure that the man would die by his hand.
“My lord!” A Rohirric warrior called and quickly approached Aragorn. Mus’ab’s eyes narrowed. “My lord, I have troubling news. Some of our men are afraid to continue and wish to turn back!”
Aragorn turned around and followed the man’s gaze. “I shall talk to them,” he promised, walking after the messenger.
Mus’ab observed the scene with interest. At last the heir of kings was given a chance to prove himself! There was a rebellion in the army and the way he dealt with it would show how worthy a leader he was. A good leader would inspire the men to follow, and if that did not work, he would punish them accordingly to set an example.
Mus’ab followed, trying to remain unseen. He wanted to see this as it would determine which set of weapons he would use on his victim. As he walked, his heart was filled with contempt for the men who wanted to turn back. They were scared of the land? His people had inhabited such lands for ages, even the women and children, and they have always survived, only growing stronger from the hardships. But those spoiled kids were ready to start crying and running away just from a glimpse of the land, which had for so many years been his home!
Aragorn stopped in front of the men and for a moment just stood there, watching them steadily. The men, no, boys, trembled before his gaze. Mus’ab grinned inwardly, looking forward to see what would happen next.
And then, the heir of Kings spoke and his voice carried easily in the eerie silence. “Go!” he said. “But keep what honour you may, and do not run! And there is a task which you may attempt and so be not wholly shamed. Take your way south-west till you come to Cair Andros, and if that is still held by enemies, as I think, then re-take it, if you can; and hold it to the last in defense of Gondor and Rohan!”
Mus’ab stood frozen, not sure what he had witnessed. The Captain was letting his men go? Unpunished? And, on top of that, he was giving them an opportunity to keep their honour? This was the worst thing that one could do! Now everyone could leave the army, unafraid! And, as it was, less than six thousand warriors remained to march to the Black Gate.
This was no king. This was a coward. And a coward would die as a coward, by the weapons kept in the cotton pouch. By which one of the three, only fate would decide.
The Captains of the West and their men had gathered around the fires, silently finishing their dinner. There would be little time to rest before the battle, and everyone was in a hurry to be done with the food quickly, so that they could retire to sleep.
Suddenly Éomer King stood up from his place and walked towards Aragorn. He whispered something too softly for Mus’ab to hear, but at the words Isildur’s heir stood up and followed the King of Rohan, leaving his bowl of food behind on the ground.
Mus’ab stared, unable to believe his luck. Could it be so easy? His hand slid inside his cotton bag, quickly finding and opening a small vial. It was filled with jaban poison, tasteless and odorless, and impossible to detect. It was not a poison meant for great lords and enemies they respected. It was meant for peasants, and cowards and traitors. It killed one slowly and with great pain, leaving the victim drowning in his own blood and vomit.
But, best of all, the jaban poison had no antidote. Once swallowed, there was no way to save the victim. And only a droplet was enough to kill a grown man.
The assassin approached the unattended bowl slowly and stole a look around. Everyone was eating or talking softly, and some were already preparing to go to sleep. No one paid him any heed. Quietly, Mus’ab poured the contents of the vial into the bowl.
The Haradrim walked away quickly, his heart beating wildly inside his chest. It was done! His victory was achieved! Isildur’s hear would finish his meal, and only the first couple of sips would be enough to kill him. Justice was achieved at last, and for once, the people of Harad would not be the ones to lose the war. Sauron would triumph and those loyal to him would be properly rewarded. His people would not need to live in the desolate lands anymore, but would have full access of the fruits of the western lands. And he would be most honoured of all, as the one man who singlehandedly brought victory, and his house would be held in a highest regard.
The thoughts were intoxicating, but Mus’ab did his best to keep his mind clear. Isildur’s heir was not dead yet, and he would have time to celebrate when the time was right, but not before.
It seemed as if ages had passed before Isildur’s heir appeared among the fires and walked towards the place where he had left his unfinished meal. He sat down, crossed legged, and took the bowl in his hands. Mus’ab waited with baited breath as Aragorn lifted the wooden spoon and dipped it into the food. He took some food and lifted the spoon, bringing it towards his month. The Assassin’s palms were covered in sweat and he tried to calm down his racing heart, as he observed the scene unfolding as if in slow motion in front of his eyes.
Suddenly, Aragorn’s hand stopped in midair and was then gradually lowered down, until the food was returned to the bow. Mus’ab froze in disbelief. There was no way the man could have sensed the poison! His gaze traveled to the man’s face, hoping to see something there. Aragorn was not looking at his food, but was gazing forward, his eyes fixed on something ahead. The assassin followed his gaze and found the dwarf and the golden-haired elf sitting on the ground, talking in hushed tones.
Aragorn stood up and, still holding the bowl in his right hand, purposefully walked towards his friends. He crouched next to them and joined in the conversation, the food momentarily forgotten.
Mus’ab cursed silently and moved closer, so that he could listen to their whispered words. He could only catch a few fragments and phrases and had to put the pieces together in his mind. Apparently the elf had been having unsettling dreams, dreams of enemy forces attacking his father’s realm. The Haradrim grinned. He knew that the elf was from Mirkwood and that Lord Sauron had sent troops to attack the woods too, so the dreams were certainly prophetic. It seemed that the elf sensed it too, for he was greatly worried. After they had talked for a few minutes, Isildur’s heir put a hand on the elf’s shoulder and invited both of his friends to his tent, where they could talk. To the spy’s relief, he took the bowl of food with him, presumably to finish it later.
Mus’ab had no tent, as did most of the men, so he simply lay on his bedroll silently, observing Aragorn’s tent. The trio had been inside for some time, and he was hoping and expecting that either the elf or the dwarf would soon burst out, flushed and worried, frantically calling for help that could not be given.
None of that happened. And when at last someone walked out of the tent, it was all three of them, looking well and unharmed. Mus’ab sighed. It seemed his target had given up dinner for tonight and he would need to get his hands dirty after all.
Isildur’s heir stopped by the two dark-haired men of the North, standing guard in front of his tent. “I will have no need of guards tonight, my friends,” he said softly and Mus’ab had to strain his ears to hear the words. “Battle is approaching, and I would have you well-rested.” The men were about to protest, but Aragorn raised his hand to stop them. “We are among friends here,” he said. “I have nothing to fear. Please, go. I do not wish to see you go into battle only to collapse from exhaustion.”
The two men complied hesitantly, and Mus’ab stared at the tent in disbelief. It seemed he was not so unfortunate after all! A second opportunity had presented itself this night, and he had to act quickly.
It seemed that Isildur’s heir was not ready to retire for the night, for he walked with his two friends, talking. When he was far away from the tent, Mus’ab approached and after a quick look around, he soundlessly slipped inside.
Ah. The food bowl was left on the ground, untouched. Perhaps the man would have it later, but Mus’ab was unwilling to take any chances. He hid in a dark corner, covering himself with one of the blankets lying on the floor.
After a while, approaching footsteps were heard, accompanied by raised voices. The tent flap was raised and Isildur’s heir entered, followed by Legolas.
The elf seemed agitated and his eyes were bright with fury. The two were having a fierce argument, but the words were spoken in a language Mus’ab could not understand. The Haradrim silently cursed himself. He should have learned at least some of the tongue of the elves for this mission! But the task was given in the last moment, and he had had no time to prepare properly.
Aragorn was calmer, but the elf seemed almost frantic. He was nearly shouting and at one point forcefully grabbed the man’s shoulders, so that he could better look him in the face while speaking and make his words go through. Once again Mus’ab regretted that he could not understand the argument. What if it was important? The assassin ran various possibilities through his mind. The last thing man and elf had been speaking of had been the attacks on Mirkwood. Perhaps the elf wished to go back and help his people, and the man did not want to let him go? But this made no sense; Isildur’s heir had allowed the cowardly men to leave, why would he restrain the elf now? Or perhaps Legolas wished to take the army to defend his forest instead of sending it to the Black Gate. Now, this was reasonable. Marching to Mordor was a suicide mission and the host would have been more useful anywhere else.
For a moment, Mus’ab wondered what the elf would think when he came here in the morning to find the man dead. Would he regret that the last words he had spoken to his leader had been ones of anger, or would he rather be glad that tonight’s argument had been resolved and there would be no one left to oppose him? The spy did not know enough of the nature of the argument to guess correctly, but he knew that he had to leave right after the deed was done and would never know the answer.
Suddenly, the elf’s eyes darted to the right, and for a torturous second Mus’ab had the feeling that Legolas was looking right into him. But then the moment passed and the elf looked back at Aragorn and continued speaking as if nothing had happened. Then Legolas seemed to change his strategy and his voice grew softer and pleading, the anger leaving it completely. At first Mus’ab wondered at that, but then he realized that it made sense – if the elf had been trying to persuade his friend to send the armies to Mirkwood instead, and Aragorn had refused, Legolas could have easily decided to start begging for the man’s help instead and telling him how much this meant to him. But the new course of action seemed to give no results and Aragorn was unrelenting. At the end, Legolas gave up. He grabbed the man’s right shoulder and whispered something, and his voice was very intense. Then he turned around and left.
Aragorn sighed and walked towards the center of the tent. After the tent flap had fallen, the campfires could illuminate the inside no longer, and the man lit a candle and placed it on the floor, next to the bowl of poisoned food. Mus’ab hoped that his enemy would finish his dinner and would spare him the trouble, but he was not so lucky.
Aragorn started undressing and preparing to go to bed, and the assassin carefully observed his target, judging his strengths. The man’s movements were slow and somewhat clumsy, and he paused often, yawning and rubbing his eyes. He was clearly exhausted, and no wonder. Mus’ab had heard the men talking of the desperate flight through the Paths of the Dead. Then the man had plunged into battle right away, and after the victory he had been called to tend to the wounded and those afflicted by the shadow, after which the march to Mordor had began almost immediately. The man had not had a break during the past two weeks, and Mus’ab wondered how he was ever hoping to survive the upcoming battle. But that mattered little now; what mattered was that his victim would soon fall asleep, and his sleep would be deep and he would not hear the assassin’s approach and would never feel the hard string around his neck. He would be an easy prey.
Aragorn walked to the makeshift bed and laid under the covers, without bothering to put out the still burning candle. Mus’ab listened intently, and soon the other man’s breathing evened out, indicating that he was asleep. The assassin’s lips curved into a predatory grin and he moved out of his hiding place. He walked slowly, quiet as a shadow, and his fingers traced the sinister string almost lovingly. One more step. There. He bent down, prepared to wind the string around his victim’s neck. The man was still sleeping.
It all happened so fast that Mus’ab had a hard time comprehending what had transpired. In one instant Isildur’s heir had been in the bed, fast asleep or so it seemed, and in the next he was behind him, holding his hands in a vice-like grip, twisting them and binding them with the string the spy was planning to use as a weapon. All the fatigue was gone, and the man was fast as a panther and strong as a mûmak. His fingers were no longer clumsy, but nimble and skilled as he tied the rope into tight, and yet surprisingly painless knots.
“First the jaban poison,” said Aragorn, speaking in the tongue of Harad, “and now a plain string. Am I so worthless in your eyes, Dernwine? Or would you care to tell me your true name?”
Mus’ab was frozen. A whirlpool of questions engulfed his mind. How did that man know he was from Harad? How could he speak his tongue? How did he know about the poison? How did he know the poison’s name? And how did he know so much about their customs to know what kind of people were murdered using this poison and such a string?
First the jaban poison, and now a plain string. Am I so worthless in your eyes? The question rang through his head, and it made him feel strangely ashamed. No, not ashamed that he had tried to kill the man and had been caught. This was war and everyone was fighting for a victory in every way they could. True, this might have not been the most honourable way to kill an adversary, but in a war everything was allowed. No, the reason why Mus’ab was ashamed was that he had tried to kill Isildur’s heir with the items from the cotton pouch. He had greatly underestimated his enemy.
As soon as the commotion had started, Gimli and Legolas had rushed into the room, weapons drawn, but they had both held back after seeing that Aragorn had control of the situation. Now they were standing close to the entrance, and Mus’ab had to turn away to avoid their murderous looks.
The Haradrim felt the elf’s gaze leave him and move to the man behind him. He asked something in his strange tongue, and once again Mus’ab cursed his inability to understand it.
“No, Legolas, he did not harm me,” the man said, “but I will ask you to use the Common tongue tonight. We do not need to give our guest a reason to believe that we are hiding something from him.”
Mus’ab frowned. Guest?
“Guest?” The elf echoed his disbelief. “Is this how you call those who try to murder you?”
“This is how I call the ones I hope to work with,” Aragorn said, and Mus’ab wondered if he was dreaming. What was happening here? Were they not going to execute him as a punishment? He was surprised that he was still alive, but had no doubts that this would soon change. He had had no doubts until now at least. As it seemed, Isildur’s heir had some plans for him and this unsettled him greatly. By the looks of the elf and the dwarf, they were just as disturbed and confused by Aragorn’s words as he was.
“I know not what you have in mind, Aragorn, but you have your proof now,” said Gimli. “We have to tell Éomer and the other Captains, so that he will receive his proper punishment.”
Mus’ab flinched as the dwarf’s rageful gaze fell upon him. He wished to finish this quickly, but before he died he wanted to know how his secret had been revealed. He hoped that he would be allowed this small mercy.
“Éomer must know nothing of this, and neither should anyone else,” said Aragorn, and the spy felt his heart beating wildly in his chest. What were they going to do with him?
“You would have never told us either if I had not sensed the poison,” said Legolas, and there was bitterness in his voice. “You are playing a dangerous game, my friend, and I am not sure if the possible reward is worth the risk.”
“Peace is always worth the risk,” Aragorn replied simply, and Mus’ab felt his confusion only growing. What was the man aiming at? He tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but nothing made sense. And how had the elf sensed the poison? Was that even possible?
Then Isildur’s heir turned towards him and looked him in the eyes. “If you give me no other name, Dernwine, I shall call you by the one you have chosen for yourself.” Mus’ab was silent, and the man continued. “I will explain what I wish of you, but first there are questions I need to answer. I suppose you want to know how I discovered your plot.” The Haradrim nodded eagerly, not believing his luck.
“First, I wish to tell you that I have spent many months in your land, and your people have my love and respect.” Isildur’s heir started in the language of Harad, but then switched to the Common tongue, perhaps so that the elf and the dwarf could follow. “It all started when I saw you draw the Circle of Renewal on the dead man’s chest. There is no such custom among the Rohirrim.” Mus’ab cursed himself. Of course he knew that! But doing this for his fallen comrades had become second nature to him, and he never thought about it. Besides, he had never needed to worry about exposing himself by acting on some Haradric custom before. How was he to know that Isildur’s heir knew so much of his people?
“Then I knew where you were coming from,” Aragorn continued, “and I have to admit that your disguise is very good, as is your mastery of both the language of Rohan and the Rohirric accent when you speak Common. I wondered what you were doing here, but the options were not too many. Perhaps you did not wish to fight under Sauron and had decided to join the Rohirrim in their fight, and thus pretended to be one of them, but this was very unlikely. More probably you were here as a spy, to cause trouble, and this is what I believed. Still, I wanted to wait for you to act first and see what your intentions are, and so I told no one about you and watched you closely.”
“Not closely enough, it seems!” Legolas interrupted angrily. “If you have but told me, I would have watched him for you. I would have seen him seep the poison into your bowl. And what if he had used another kind of poison?”
“He did not use another poison, so it matters not now,” said Aragorn. “I know that you are displeased with me, my friend, and you have a good reason, but we will discuss this later. Dernwine, I guess you are wondering how I knew about the poison. While I traveled through Harad, I became familiar with the jaban poison. When I returned, I took a sample to Lord Elrond, who has a great knowledge of the healing arts. I thought that perhaps in very small doses the poison could be used to cure some malady. To me jaban has always been odorless, and so I was very surprised when Lord Elrond remarked that it smelled of rotten eggs. So the poison does have an odor, but it is not strong enough for us, humans, to sense it.”
Things were starting to make more sense now in Mus’ab’s mind, but he waited patiently for Aragorn to finish. “When you put the poison in my food, I did not know it. I have to admit that Legolas is right and I did not watch you closely enough. I would have eaten the food right there. The reason I stopped was because Legolas was disturbed by a recurring dream, and I wished to talk to him. I took my food to the tent, meaning to eat it later. But once we entered the tent, Legolas remarked that my food smelled of rotten eggs. I already knew that you were from Harad, and I was familiar with the jaban poison, and so it was not too hard to understand what was happening.”
Suddenly, a grim smile spread across Aragorn’s face and he stared hard at his prisoner. “Tell me something, Dernwine. Do you also carry with you the malik poison, the one that kills swiftly and the one you use only for kings and other noble targets?” Mus’ab nodded mutely, once again amazed at how much this man knew about him. “So you had both poisons,” Aragorn continued, “but you chose to use the jaban because you believed that I was unworthy of the malik?” Mus’ab nodded again and looked down, unable to meet the other man’s gaze.
Aragorn laughed. “There is a beautiful irony in this,” he said. “When I returned from Harad, I also brought Lord Elrond a sample of the malik poison. And this one was indeed odorless, even to him. Had you used this poison, Legolas would have never detected it. Had you used this poison, you mission would have been accomplished. I suppose I must be glad that I failed to gain your respect.”
Mus’ab listened, stunned. This was his own fault. He had misjudged his enemy and had tried to kill such an incredible man with a poison meant for commoners. Of course fate would interfere and would not let the heir of Kings die in such a way! “You did gain my respect,” he finally said. “Unfortunately for me, it was too late.”
Aragorn smiled. “Too late for you to kill me, yes. But perhaps not too late for me to show you that there is another path you can take.” He left Mus’ab wondering about this and changed the subject. “I have not finished my story, but perhaps you can figure out what happened later. Now I knew that your purpose was to kill me, but I wanted to catch you in the act, and so I set up a trap. I knew that you were desperate to act fast because we would reach the Black Gate soon. So I dismissed my guards, granting you access to the tent.”
“And you knew that I was here!” Mus’ab muttered, suddenly remembering how Legolas had stared at him for a brief moment, while he was hiding in the darkness. “The elf saw me and told you where I was. Your argument with him was an act, to give him a chance to look around.”
The man laughed again. “No, this was no act. It was only Legolas disagreeing with my decision to face you alone. He noticed you by chance, and I was very grateful, but this was unplanned.” One look at the elf and the dwarf showed Mus’ab that they were still very displeased with this decision.
Aragorn sobered and looked around, catching the gazes of all present. “My friends, it is very important that no one learns of this. I have a great love for the people of Harad, and if I ever become king, one of my first goals will be a peace will them. It will be hard because after this war Gondor and Harad will distrust each other even more than before, but I believe I can do it. However, this will never work if my people know that a man of Harad had sneaked into our army and tried to murder me. This knowledge will only increase the hostility, and I will not have that.”
“You truly want peace?” Mus’ab asked in amazement, but then a thought passed through his mind and he frowned. “And yet, you ride to battle! You will not be content with Harad and Gondor living in peace under Sauron’s rule; you would only wish both of our lands to live in peace under your rule. You are no different from any war-thirsty ruler!”
“I have no desire to rule over your people, and I hope you will believe this one day,” Aragorn said. “But neither do I wish for Sauron to rule over Harad. Your land has many princes and nobles, and you can rule over yourselves. Not all of your lords are serving under Sauron. Many of your tribes are free.”
“Under Sauron we are protected,” Mus’ab said.
“Protected from whom? From Gondor?” Aragorn asked. “If Sauron falls and I achieve the peace that I desire, Gondor will be your ally and will send you help if you need protection.”
Mus’ab snorted, unable to believe this man. Sauron had protected his people for centuries, and now Isildur’s heir was asking him to cast his lord away for a promise of an alliance he never believed would work. “What do you wish of me?” he asked.
“I want you to help me achieve this peace. You are a man of quick wit, with great knowledge of our people, language and culture and can easily gain my men’s trust. I wish you to come to Minas Tirith as an ambassador and show that the people of Harad mean not harm and are not to be feared. Then I want you to return to Harad and teach your people about the man of the west, tell them who we are and that we are people just like them, who only hope for peace. But before all that comes to pass, I will ask you to remain with this army, dressed as a man of Rohan, and fight against Sauron as we all will.”
“And if I refuse?” Mus’ab asked.
“If you refuse, you will die tonight,” Aragorn said calmly. “Here, in this tent. None of the others will learn of who you are and what you tried to do, and I will try to achieve what I had planned without your help.”
It was Mus’ab’s turn to laugh. “You offer me to work for you when you are a king, but your offer is meaningless, my lord. Has it ever occurred to you that you will never be a king? We will reach the Black Gate the day after tomorrow. Your pitiful army has no chance to stand against my Lord Sauron. Whether I have succeeded in my mission or not, you will be dead in less than two days.”
“And yet, your Lord Sauron sent you here,” Aragorn said. “It seems to me that he is not as certain in his victory as you want me to believe. Your lord fears me, and I will do what I can to show to him that he indeed has a reason to fear. Which side do you choose, Dernwine?”
“If I choose to help you, what proof do you require of my good will?” Mus’ab asked.
“I ask for no proof except for your word. Give me your word, and I will believe you.”
Mus’ab was observing his enemy with interest. Not many people would trust his word under similar circumstances. Isildur’s heir was a man of honour, and this was something that he respected. Still, the man had given him an impossible choice.
His options were not two, but three. First, he could refuse the offer and accept death. If he chose so, he would retain his honour and would not need to betray his loyalty. However, in this case his mission would be unaccomplished, Isildur’s heir would still be a danger to Sauron, and his daughter would have to grow up fatherless. No, this was not an option.
Second, he could accept the offer and if the men of the west somehow won the war, he could assist the new King of Gondor in securing peace and understanding with the land of Harad. He would still be able to care for May and as an ambassador, he and his daughter would have a high position in society. But this was not something he could ever do. He would never betray his lord and work for his greatest enemy. And he was sent to a mission after all; he had to either accomplish it, or die trying.
Or third, he could lie and be released, and then seek another opportunity to achieve his mission. Then he would win the war for Sauron and return home as a hero. And yet, he did not like that. If Isildur’s heir trusted his word and he broke it, it would mean that his enemy was more a man of honour than he was. But there was no other option, and he was a spy and an assassin after all, and spies and assassins sometimes needed to use not only honourable methods to achieve their goals. In addition, if he did that, he would be given the opportunity to understand something that had bothered him ever since they had left the Pelennor fields.
“I will accept your terms,” Mus’ab said slowly, “but I have one condition. You go to Mordor with this pathetic army, and yet you seem to have some hopes of success. Obviously you know something that I do not. You have a secret weapon, and you count on it to bring you victory. Tell me what it is, and I will agree with everything you ask of me.”
“You are in no position to set terms, Dernwine,” said Aragorn. “I may appear trusting to you, but I am no fool. If you give me your word, you will be able to walk freely around the camp, but you will not know more about our plans than you need to know.”
Mus’ab nodded. He had expected this, but he had felt the need to try. “Very well. I accept your terms. I will fight Sauron as one of the Rohirrim. And if you win the war and are crowned king, I will serve you as best as I can and try to bring understanding and acceptance among both of our people. I give you my word.”
“You cannot let him go unpunished!” Gimli protested. Legolas said nothing, but his eyes never left the prisoner and his gaze was dark.
“I can and I will,” answered Aragorn. “Some things are bigger and more important than petty crimes, and understanding and respect between Gondor and Harad is one of them.” He knelt down and undid Mus’ab’s binds. “Stand up, Dernwine. You are free to go.”
Mus’ab stood up in disbelief and tentatively stretched his limbs, as if expecting that some magic had been worked on him so that he would be unable to move. He could not believe they were letting him go unpunished after what he had tried to do. But as he walked to the tent flap and then left the tent, no one tried to stop him.
The spy walked into the night, back towards his bedroll when suddenly a strong hand grabbed his tunic and whirled him around. Mus’ab found himself staring at Legolas’s blazing eyes. “I will be watching you,” the elf hissed. “And if you even think of hurting him again, you will be dead before you act. And your death will not be an easy one. You will beg me for mercy before the end.”
Mus’ab suppressed a shudder and he had to admit that it was impossible not to believe the elf. But no, Legolas was wrong. He could kill him slowly, but Mus’ab would never beg him for mercy and would accept whatever end awaited him with honour. Still, he hoped that it would not come to that.
But how could he ever act with the elf watching his every step? An idea formed in his mind, and then he knew what would drive Legolas away from this place. “I have to tell you something,” Mus’ab said, forcing his voice to stop shaking. The elf looked as if hearing anything from him was the last thing he wished to do, but the Haradrim continued nevertheless. “These dreams you have been having, about your father’s realm being attacked – they are true. I can confirm that Sauron sent forces to Mirkwood.”
Sadness appeared on the elf’s fair face, but it replaced none of the anger there. “I know,” he simply said.
The words confused Mus’ab. “You know it for certain? And yet you are still here? You will not go back and help your father?”
“If I go, Gimli will come with me,” Legolas said thoughtfully and for a second hope leapt in Mus’ab’s chest. But then the elf continued, “My father has his councilors, friends and warriors to support him. It is Aragorn who needs us now.” His gaze hardened. “Remember what I told you. I will be watching you. And Aragorn may wish to have you fight beside us, but I will be happier if you run away from here and we never see you again. I will not hinder you if you do.” With those words the elf left him and walked back to Aragorn’s tent. Mus’ab doubted that after what had happened Legolas and Gimli would leave that tent tonight, or the night after. Somehow, his task had suddenly become much harder.
March 25, 3019 T.A.
If Mus’ab had had any doubts that Sauron would triumph in this war, they were all gone. The army of Gondor and Rohan stood no chances against the armies of his lord, and the man doubted that they would hold for more than an hour.
Mus’ab was still wearing the disguise of a Rohirrim. Thus, he had to defend himself from Sauron’s forces, and although he was trying to hold back, he had already slain a few orcs. He had considered removing his disguise and joining the victorious army, but there was one last thing he had to do first. He had to accomplish his mission.
Isildur’s heir was fighting in the first line of offence, not more than twenty steps in front of Mus’ab. He was concentrated on the battle and not on what was happening behind him. Behind him were friends and allies, and he did not expect an attack from that direction. It was a perfect opportunity. The assassin reached inside the silken pouch, handing on the right side of his belt, and retrieved the intricately decorated dagger. He raised the weapon, ready for a deadly throw.
And then, before the knife had even left his hand, an arrow whistled through the air and pierced his palm. Mus’ab stared at the arrow, now sticking through his hand, as if mesmerized. He did not have a second to register what was happening when a second arrow pierced his stomach.
The spy collapsed to his knees and then to the ground. A wound in the stomach was deadly, and the death was not instantaneous, but slow and painful. The elf had fulfilled his promise. Now the only thing left to Mus’ab was to fulfill his in turn, to accept his fate and refuse to ask for mercy.
As he lay on the ground and his vision grew dimmer, he observed the battle unfolding around him. And, to his shock, at one point something happened, a change that he could not explain, but at the end Sauron was defeated and the Captains of the West emerged victorious. Mus’ab watched this in horror. Gondor had triumphed and his people had no protector now. What would happen to them? Would Isildur’s heir stay true to his word and strive for piece, or would he seek revenge for the second attempt on his life?
Mus’ab had been given the opportunity to help his people, and not only had he not used it, but he had also made their situation harsher. Someone would stumble across his body and would wonder why a man of Rohan had been killed by one of Legolas’s arrows. Then questions would be asked, the truth would be revealed, and even if the future King would be forgiving, his people would likely not be. Hostility against Harad would only rise, and the spy could think of no way to avoid this.
Suddenly he felt someone take the dagger from his limp hand. Mus’ab looked up and gasped – his greatest enemy, his first failed mission, was crouching next to him. “You wished to kill me with this?” Aragorn said, looking at the beautiful dagger, and his voice sounded sad and tired. “I suppose I should feel honoured. I can do nothing to help you now, but let me ease your passing.”
“No!” Mus’ab croaked, almost panicked. “The elf warned me that this would be my end should I try to kill you again, and I made my decision and knew the consequences. I will face my punishment.” He paused, exhausted by the words he had spoken, but he was planning to say more. “What will become of my people now?”
“Nothing has changed,” said Aragorn. “I still wish our people to live in mutual understanding and respect.”
“Then pull out the elf’s arrows!” Mus’ab whispered urgently. “No one must know what I had tried to do!”
Aragorn reached out to do it, but the dying man stopped him. “Not yet! This will quicken my death, and I do not wish this. Do it only after I am dead.”
To Mus’ab’s relief, Aragorn nodded mutely, accepting his decision. A movement to the left caught his eye, and the assassin noticed his killer approaching. Legolas looked distressed and ashamed, and he wondered at that.
“Aragorn, I-” he started, but the man interrupted him.
“You did what you had to do,” Isildur’s heir said. “I know how much effort it cost you not to do this earlier.”
The elf sighed. “He deserved to die, but it was cruel of me to kill him in this way. Let me grant him a quick death.”
“He does not wish that,” Aragorn said, and Mus’ab smiled weakly, satisfied that his desire had been granted. He wanted to talk to Legolas before he died, to tell him that he had been wrong and that he would not beg for mercy before the end. He tried to say it, but his strength was failing him, and he could barely whisper.
“Come closer,” he said softly, locking his eyes with Legolas’s. “I want to tell you something.”
The elf looked surprised, but complied and knelt down, nearing his head to the dying man’s. Mus’ab opened his month to say what he had planned, but suddenly stopped. He knew that he did not have the strength to speak much, and whatever he said would be his last words. And suddenly he had an idea how to make everything good and right again. And so when he spoke, he did not say what he had initially intended, but said something else. A feeling of peace spread through his heart when the elf nodded, confirming that he had understood.
When he finished speaking, someone pulled the arrow out of his body. Mus’ab did not know if it had been the elf or the king, and he did not have the strength to protest anymore. Truth be told, he was deeply grateful.
Silence. At last. May crawled out from under the bed and looked around the empty room. Not long ago the news had arrived that Lord Sauron was no more and the armies of Gondor and Rohan had emerged victorious. Everyone had run away, panicked, taking only the most valuable possessions. The men of the west would chase them and kill them most cruelly, everyone had said. And now they were heading south, deep into the deserts.
The child had refused to go at first. She had waited for her father to come and get her, but many men had returned from the battle and had left with their families, and her father was not among them. She was worried, but she knew that her father could be gone for a long time when he was on a mission, and she had to find someone to take care of her in the meantime.
In the neighboring house lived Jamilah, who usually took care of her when her father was gone. The woman had small children that May had played with only the day before, but the girl could not hear their joyful voices coming from inside the house as she usually did. The door was open.
A strange sense of dread gripped May’s heart, but she stepped forward and peeked through the narrow opening. The room looked empty and the child gathered her courage and stepped inside. She gasped, startled, when a movement caught her eye, but then she saw that it was only Jamilah’s mother, Grandma Zafira, as they all called her affectionately.
The old woman was bowled over a glass of water on the wooden table, and her long white tresses hid her features. She looked up as the girl approached and a frown marred her wrinkled face. “Why are you still here, child?”
May’s eyes widened at the odd question. Where else was she supposed to be? This was her home. “Where is Jamilah?” she murmured.
“Jamilah left with her man and the little ones,” Grandma Zafira said. “They will travel into the deserts and hopefully escape Gondor’s wraith. You should have left too.”
May gasped. Jamilah had left? Who would take care of her now, before her father returned? “What of Lord Bakr?” she asked.
“Lord Bakr was killed in the battle, and his family has left already,” Grandma Zafira replied. “You are left alone.”
May could not believe it. “And what of Aunt Adara, Aunt Luloah, Uncle Na’man…?”
Grandma Zafira was sadly shaking her head. “They are all gone, child. Only I was left behind because I am too old and sick for such a long road. But I will still die with dignity, before those monsters of Gondor arrive.” She opened a jar and poured fine white powder into her glass of water. “I advise you to do the same. They will be here soon. The men of Gondor are beasts, and they do terrible things to young girls, even to those as young as you. Leave this world by your own will, child.” The old woman lifted the glass and drank several sips. Then she placed it back on the table and turned towards the girl with a sad smile. May screamed as Grandma Zafira slowly slid to the floor, dead.
May wanted to run away. She wanted to throw up, to hide, to cry. But, most of all, she wanted her father to hold her and to tell her that she was his little princess and that one day all the beauties in the world would belong to her.
But she could do none of that. There was a dead woman in front of her, and she had to pay her the last respects. May had never touched a dead body before, but she felt surprisingly calm as she closed her eyes and drew the Circle of Renewal over her chest. Strangely, she was not even disturbed by the thought that there would be no one to do the same favors for her.
As if walking in a dream, the girl reached out and took the glass from the table. It was still half-full, and she raised it to her lips, about to drink.
Suddenly, a hand knocked over the glass, and it crashed to the floor, breaking in hundreds of little pieces. May gasped. She had not heard anyone enter! The hand then grasped her wrist and she turned around, at the same time trying to pull away.
Her assailant was a strange man, tall and very slender. Silky strands of golden hair flowed around his shoulders like molten gold, his skin had an unnatural radiance, and his ears… Ah, May knew it! This was no man, but an elf! She had heard stories about these creatures and had never seen a real one, but she knew one thing – elves were the enemy.
The girl screamed and fought and thrashed, but the elf’s grip was strong. “I will not hurt you, May,” he said. He was speaking very slowly, clearly enunciating every word. “Can you understand what I am saying?”
May was annoyed. “My father has taught me the Common Tongue,” she replied proudly. Of course she would understand him. Her father had sometimes taken her to meetings with foreign envoys. Every single time such a man came to their land, he expected them to speak Westron. Not a single one, ever, had had the grace to try to learn the language of Harad. Not even a few words, not even a greeting or a compliment. And then, worst of all, if some of the men of Harad would speak the Common Tongue not fluently enough, the westerners would mock them for being uneducated. Anger rose in the child’s heart. What right did they have to mock? How many languages did they speak?
“I am glad,” said the elf in his melodious voice. “This will save us a lot of trouble.”
“Let me go!” May cried and kicked the elf in the shin. He hissed in pain but did not move. “My father will kill you when he returns and sees you holding me against my will!”
Sadness passed across the fair being’s face. “Your father is not coming back, child.”
May grew cold at the words. Her knees trembled and she had the feeling that there was something heavy placed on top of her chest, suffocating her. For a moment she even forgot to fight her attacker.
“He was killed in the battle,” the elf continued, and May felt conflicting emotions fight inside her heart. She chose anger for it was the least painful of all.
“You lie!” She cried and tried to kick the elf again, but this time he evaded her blow. “You are an elf! I know all about you! You are cunning and sly and never tell the truth!”
The elf turned her around and held her by the shoulders, so that she would face him. His eyes were sad and serious. “I killed your father, May. Why would I lie about something such as this?”
May felt all the blood leave her face. She heard the elf’s next words as if in a dream, “I killed your father because he threatened the life of a man I would die to protect, but I doubt that this, or anything, would excuse me in your eyes. At least, I hope that now you will see that I am telling you the truth.”
Well, he was right for one thing. “Murderer!” she cried and with a strength born out of hatred and desire for justice and revenge, she pulled her hand free, grabbed a knife from the table and slashed in the elf’s direction. But the creature was fast and he grabbed her hand in his iron grip. The blade fell to the floor, useless. She kept crying and frantically trying to reach the killer with her fists and legs, but the elf always managed to keep her desperate attacks at a distance.
When she calmed down, he tried to speak to her once again. “This war has gone on for long enough, May,” he said. “Now Gondor wishes peace with the people of Harad. We wish no more blood. And if you are willing, you could help us achieve this.”
“How do you know what Gondor wants to do to my people?” the child asked, glaring at the elf.
“I have heard it from the King himself.”
May snorted. Did the elf think she was stupid just because she was a girl and so young? Her father had taught her well about politics and the state of the world they lived in. “Gondor has no king!”
A secretive smile appeared on the elf’s lips. “Perhaps not. Not yet. But she will have one soon.”
Despite herself, May felt a strange sense of curiosity. “What do you mean?”
The elf’s smile only broadened. “Do you wish to meet him?”
“I wish you to let me go!” The girl hissed angrily and tried to pull away. The elf held her fast.
“Go? Go where? To try to find more poison and finish what you were doing before I arrived? You are young, May. There is still much you can do in this world. No one will hurt you. If you had not noticed, the only one trying to hurt you is yourself.”
May felt that her tears were still falling and she blinked angrily, trying to keep them at bay. She did not wish to show any weaknesses in front of her enemy! She stopped fighting and tried to make sense of what was happening. The elf wished to take her to the King, but what would that King want of her? She had nothing to offer.
There was only one way to find out and she did not fear the unknown. “Take me to the King,” she said, trying to sound proud. The elf smiled and released her, taking her by the hand instead. Now was a good opportunity to attempt an escape, but she knew that the elf was faster than her. It was better to gain his trust for now, and who knew, a chance to avenge her father could arise later.
The two walked until they reached the camp of the victorious army. The elf led her towards one of the tents and she followed obediently. Her companion said something to one of the men outside, and the warrior rushed into the tent.
In a moment, another man walked out. He was tall and even with his armor on May could sense that he was very strong. He had not changed after the battle and his clothes were covered in cuts, blood and grime, but there was an air of authority around him and May knew without asking that this was the King. She had never seen a real King before and she stared at him with open curiosity.
“What is it, Legolas?” The man sounded tired, but his voice was strong and even. “I need to care for the hobbits.”
“I thought I could help you with something,” the elf replied cheerfully. “You said that you needed a man of Harad, who would help you bring peace and understanding between your people. A man of quick wit, capable of learning languages well and interested in different cultures and habits. A man, who could learn your ways so well that your people would trust him.” His voice was colored with amusement. “I found you such a man.” To May’s surprise, he nodded towards her.
The King looked uncomprehending, and the elf quickly added. “This is May, Dernwine’s daughter. He told me to find her before he died.”
May was growing confused. She knew no Dernwine, but she was willing to play the elf’s game and see where it would take her.
Surprise appeared on the King’s handsome face and he knelt down, looking the child in the eyes. “You are a very brave girl to come here by yourself,” he said. “Your father was a very talented man, but chose a wrong path to use his abilities. But if you have inherited his talents, you will be able to do your people a great good.”
It took May a moment to understand what the man had said. She had expected him to speak in Westron, but he was speaking in her language, in the tongue of Harad! She had never before heard a foreigner speak it, and it took her by surprise. It sounded strange. The man was saying all the words correctly, but the melody of the words and of the speech was somewhat different from the usual. It sounded almost funny.
But why was the man speaking her language? Perhaps he thought she could understand no other because she was a child. “I can speak the Common Tongue,” she said, annoyed.
“Good for you,” the man said with a kind smile, but did not switch the languages. “This will be very helpful to you if you accept my proposal.”
May resisted the urge to giggle at his funny way of speaking, but then she remembered where she was and why. “You are my enemy,” she said. “You have killed many of my people, including my father. I will never help you.”
The King’s gaze was sad. “I know that you must hate us,” he said. “I know that you cannot forgive us for hurting someone who has been so good and kind to you, and you want us to pay for it. But do not let your grief blind you, May. There is much more left to live for.”
The girl felt tears roll down her cheeks and felt annoyed at her weakness. “What would you know about grief?” she asked angrily.
“My father was also killed when I was a child,” said the King. This took her by surprise. She looked up and saw her own pain reflected in his captivating silver gaze.
“Who killed him?” she asked.
“Orcs,” the man replied and May wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“They fight together with our men, but I don’t like them.”
The man smiled gently. “I do not like them either. But if you help me, from now on your men will have for allies not orcs, but the men of Gondor.”
The men of Gondor? Grandma Zafira’s words rang through her head once again, and yet no one so far had done anything to harm her. She eyed the King with distrust. “What do you want of me?” she asked.
“You have no family here, do you? I want you to come to Gondor. I will find a family who wants to take care of you. I want you to learn about our way of life, our habits, our values, our beliefs. But at the same time I want you to teach the people of Gondor about Harad. I want you to tell them true stories about your people and show us what you are like. When you turn twenty, you will return to Harad as my ambassador. You will tell your people all you have seen in Gondor and all that you have learned. I will not tell you what to say; you will share your own impressions. If you dislike us, you may say so.”
May was thinking hard. This did not sound bad at all, but at the same time Gondor had been their enemy for as long as she could remember and her father had been killed in a war with them. Still, the King had not asked her to serve Gondor. He was only asking her to live there and observe.
“What say you?” the King asked.
The girl could control herself no longer. She giggled. “You speak our language very funnily,” was all she said.
The King laughed. “Is that so? Then, if you are willing, I would like you to teach me better.”
May smiled in response. That she could do. That, and perhaps more. Yes, she would give Gondor a chance, and if her expectations were met, perhaps she would do as the King asked. And if not… if not she could simply live in Gondor until she grew up, and then avenge her father’s death and return back home, where she would share with their lords what she had learned about the enemy. Yes, this sounded like a good plan. She was an heir of spies after all.
- This was not meant as an AU. My idea was that these events had happened in the world of the book, but Aragorn had tried hard to hide what had happened because he didn’t want to raise hostility against Harad if his men learned about the assassinations attempts. This is why we don’t see accounts of this anywhere. I’m not sure if I succeeded though.
- The following paragraph is copied from the book:
'Go!' said Aragorn. 'But keep what honour you may, and do not run! And there is a task which you may attempt and so be not wholly shamed. Take your way south-west till you come to Cair Andros, and if that is still held by enemies, as I think, then re-take it, if you can; and hold it to the last in defence of Gondor and Rohan!'
Return of the King. Book V. Chapter 10: “The Black Gate Opens”
- Legolas’s dreams are referring to the Battle of Mirkwood, 23-25 March 3019, T.A.