By the Sea of Rhun
Pallando spurred his steed to a final effort, and at length reached the crest of the sandy hill they had climbed, stopping to take in the vista beyond.
For months he had traveled north and east, past the Mountains of Shadow and the Carach Angren, past the Ash Mountains and the empty lands beyond, yet still within the far-flung reaches of Gondor's empire. Then in time he had passed over the mountains and through the vales of Dorwinion, and still he had traveled eastward; past the storied vineyards of that land, heavy with leaf and grape, past its fortified farmsteads of rough-hewn logs of oak and ash. Now, in the autumn of the year, as the ever-present East wind began to smell and taste of frost, and the leaves of the hedges and copses turned ruddy and golden, he had come to the hither shores of the inland Sea of Rhun.
Here, in the East, the sprawling realm of Gondor reached its uttermost end. The bright blue waters of the sea, glinting with the late-morning Sun, lapped at the sandy dunes of the beach. From the hill where Pallando sat on his steed, the dusty road looped down through the dunes and passed through a wooden stockade reached its end in a town of Men that huddled on the sands by the shores of the Sea. The town was built of oak and ash logs in the manner of all the houses of Dorwinion. A little river snaked its way eastward between the houses, and turned suddenly to the south where it met a sandspit that jutted out into the water. Behind this spit was a natural harbour, and along its shores were a number of wooden docks, sheltering the oaken longships that carried cargos of wine, timber or fish along the shores of the Sea, and up and down the rivers Running and Redwater that flowed into it from the lands of the distant North.
"It appears we've reached the end of the road," said Pallando, as he patted the horse's flank. The beast snorted and pawed the ground. "Fear not," continued the Wizard, "for while I must charter one of yonder ships to the farther shore, your journey will not take you beyond that town. But a few more miles, and then I shall set you at liberty, to return to the King's Stables at Osgiliath. You are a fine thoroughbred; not for you, I deem, are the trackless wastes of the uttermost East, and most likely I shall have to travel on foot." The horse whinnied hopefully, and then resumed its canter down the hill.
After half an hour's time, as the bell of the watchtower tolled the arrival of the Noon hour, Pallando came to the closed wooden gate amid the stockade that barred the entrance to the town. The banner of Gondor, the White Tree upon a black field, flapped in the breeze from a pole that rose above the oak-beamed watchtower to the right of the gate. The dozen or so black-tunic'd Gondor-men who manned the battlements glared with suspicion at this strange visitor.
"You're surely not of our kindred," said one of the guards, speaking the Common Tongue of the West with an accent that marked him as a pure-bred Gondor-man as clearly as his grey eyes, black hair, and tall, slim stature. "Nor are you one of the Dorwinion-men, whose beards are all as yellow as straw," continued the guard. "If you are an Easterling, then you will find nothing here but your doom, for Gondor will not allow barbarian spies to scout these lands. Who are you, then, and what is your business? Speak!"
"I am the Blue Wizard," he replied, as patiently as he could; he had endured many such challenges since entering Dorwinion, which as the easternmost march of Gondor was heavily patrolled by the King's soldiers. "I bear a letter of marque from your King Ciryandil, granting me free passage throughout his lands."
"Do you indeed?" replied the guard with a frown, as his grey eyes took the measure of this oddly-garbed stranger. "Stay where you are, then; we shall open the gate, and send out a party to examine your scroll. Be warned; death will find you swiftly if you attempt any trickery."
"There is no trickery!" snapped Pallando, his patience now wearing thin. "Examine the scroll, and then let me proceed forthwith! I have ridden hard over many long miles, in which there were no inns or taverns to shelter the weary traveler. I am keen for bread and board, aye and wine too, and a roof over my head once again."
The guard said nothing, but withdrew from the battlements above the gate. A clanking and crashing was heard, the gate slowly opened outward, and several spear-wielding guards stepped forth, including the one who had challenged Pallando from the battlements. After studying the scroll for some minutes, he handed it back to Pallando, and then bowed his head briefly.
"Your pardon, my lord," said he, his manner apologetic. "It is seldom that we receive visitors in these parts who bear a letter of marque from His Majesty. I had doubted that you bore such a scroll in truth. Mardil is my name, Sergeant-at-Arms of the gate."
"I am not offended, Sergeant Mardil," replied Pallando. "Merely tired. I understand suspicion of strangers is perhaps to be expected on Gondor's frontiers. Speaking of which, perhaps you can tell me the name of this town, so that I can be certain I have reached my destination?"
"This town is named Nindemos in our tongue, my lord," replied Mardil, "though the local Men of Dorwinion call it Hasufeld in their own rude tongue. It is the end of the East Road; nothing lies beyond here but the Inland Sea, and the wilds of the uttermost East beyond that."
"Then this is indeed the place that I sought," replied Pallando. "Perhaps, kind sir, you may direct me to an inn where I may spend the night?"
"The Vine and Leaf," replied the Mardil. "It is right by the docks, and well-signed, so you can't miss it if you follow the High Street east through the town. The proprietor, Rollo by name, is fluent in our Common Tongue as well as the tongue of Dorwinion, so you should have no difficultly obtaining room and board there on reasonable terms."
"I am not in the business of haggling with innkeepers," smiled Pallando. "But I thank you for your counsel."
Pallando then dismounted from his horse, and removed its saddlebag with his left hand, while leaning on his crystal staff with his other hand. He slung the saddlebag over his shoulder, whispered quietly into the horse's ear, and then turned to the guards, saying "Take this proud steed to your stables, and see to it that it is fed and watered, and accommodated comfortably. It is from the King's Stables at Osgiliath, and should be dispatched to its home in the care of the next mounted patrol that visits this town, when it returns to the West."
"We will do as you bid, my lord," replied the guard, staring at the horse in wonder. "But how will you return home without it? Do you mean to acquire a lesser steed here?"
"I have no need for such a beast where I am going," replied Pallando. "Good day!" And with that he turned his back on the guards, and strode down the High Street at a rapid pace.
"What an odd fellow," said one of the guards, a broad-shouldered youth of medium height.
"Mind your tongue, whelp!" shouted Mardil, cuffing the boy on the ear – albeit not too harshly. "Only a great lord could command a letter of marque from His Majesty, and you should not speak ill of your betters, whatever you think of their mode of speech or dress.
Now lead this horse to the stables – you'll answer with your own hide if his isn't taken care of!"
Pallando strode on foot through the dusty streets of the town, observing the sights and sounds. The buildings were all of one or two stories, with high-pitched shingle roofs; but, unlike the rough-hewn, isolated homesteads he had passed in his journey through the countryside of Dorwinion, these the logs of these townhouses were carved into intricate, interlacing patterns. In front of the houses were little gardens, separated from the streets by wooden fences. Here and there sheep and fowl were herded through the alleys of the town by rosy-cheeked women or women, all of them dressed in beige or green-dyed robes of homespun wool, and bearing the fair-skin, golden hair and blue eyes that typified their people. There were fewer men to be seen, though Pallando assumed that at this hour of the day they were either at their lunch tables, inside their workshops, or on their boats out at sea, depending on their vocation. The sea-breeze was omnipresent, although Pallando noted that it smelled more brackish than the winds that coursed over the Western ocean.
As Pallando neared the docks, which smelled vaguely of fish and tar, he came upon a two-storied house of fair size, with a carved and painted grape-leaf and vine hung from a signpost above the stout oaken door. Smoke issued from a short stone-flagged chimney above, indicated that warmth and perhaps a hot meal could be found within.
"This must be the place," said Pallando, as he passed through the door and gazed at the scene inside, his eyes blinking as they adapted to the dim light. Before him, it what appeared to be the Inn's common room, were a dozen or so trestle tables flanked by wooden benches, most of them occupied by working men on their lunch-hour, though some were vacant. At the far side of the room was a huge stone-flagged fireplace, which led up to the chimney that Pallando had seen from outside. A large fire roared on the hearth, and through it he could see meat turning on spits, and a crowded room beyond that which must have been the kitchen. To the left of the fireplace a door led to that kitchen, while to the right an open doorway showed stairs that must have led to the Inn's guest rooms.
Pallando observed carefully the occupants of the common room. But for one Gondor-man, a solider who was deep in his cups in his off-duty hours, they were all Men of Dorwinion; as tall at least as the Gondor-men, yet golden-haired and bearded, and blue-eyed and fair-skinned, with broad frames and deep, booming voices that often broke into laughter or song. They were kin of the Northmen whose homeland was in the upper Vales of Anduin, but who had spread far and wide across the Wilderland in the years since the defeat of the Enemy, which had brought peace and order under the rule of the Sea Kings, and opened for settlement many lands that had once been closed to Men.
While the Gondor-men sang but occasionally, and then in soft voices of tunes ancient and full of sorrow or longing, these Dorwinion-men ever wrote songs anew, of deeds bold and simple, of jests and brawls, of feasting and ribaldry, and they sung them in loud, rich voices that shook the timbers of their wooden halls. Yet for all their fair looks and their brawn, they were less in wisdom than the Men of Gondor; the memory of the deeds of their forefathers did not stretch back before the Battle of Gorgoroth, in which they had played a small part fighting under the banner of Elendil. Of the tale of years before that time they had none of their own certain lore, but only fantastic tales of gods and giants, trolls and dragons. Beside the somber men of Numenor-in-Exile, whose memory stretched clearly even unto the Elder Days, the Dorwinion-men were like all Northmen still children under the Sun. "Men of the Twilight indeed," whispered Pallando.
Turning his mind to the present, he sat down on a bench by an unoccupied trestle table some distance from the fireplace, removing his hat and placing it on top of his staff, which he leaned against the wall beside him. He was soon approached by a maiden of twenty or so summers, wearing a beige woolen dress, with her long golden hair plaited in two tails. She asked in heavily-accented Common Speech how she could be of service to her guest – "Do try the wine, my lord, it's the finest in all Dorwinion, which is saying quite a bit." Pallando requested room and board along with his wine, to which she replied, "I'll bring you bread and more besides for your board, though you'll have to speak to Rollo the Innkeeper about a room. I'll let him know you wish to parley with him." She departed through the door to the kitchens, and returned some minutes later bearing a heavy wooden tray laden with plates of meat, fish, fowl, cheese, bread, grapes and berries, and with a clay pitcher of rich red wine accompanied by a brass bowl. "A hearty feast indeed," the Wizard thought to himself as he tucked in eagerly.
Some time later, when Pallando had finished his ample meal, and was polishing off the last of the wine, a booming voice interrupted his repast.
"Welcome, sir! Welcome to Hasufeld, and to the Vine and Leaf!"
Pallando looked up at an enormous man, near seven feet in height, and easily some three-hundred pounds in girth. He was dressed in woolen robes of dark green, though over them he wore a stained apron of plain woolen cloth. His golden hair and beard had a silver tinge, and his bright red face formed a contrast to his cheerful blue eyes.
"Good afternoon to you, dear sir," replied Pallando. "You are Rollo the Innkeeper, I presume?"
"I am indeed," beamed the man, whom Pallando noted used the Common Tongue with hardly the trace of an accent.
"I am one of the Wizards, of whom you may have heard?" asked Pallando.
"The name is not familiar to me, sir," replied Rollo, frowning apologetically.
"Well. In any case, I wish to rent a room for the night," said Pallando. "One night only,
for I will be on my way in the morning."
"Certainly sir," replied Rollo cheerfully. "We have a very fine room still available – the best in the house, and fitting for a gentleman from the Westlands such as I perceive you to be. Let's see – including wine, this dinner and the evening's supper, tomorrow's breakfast, and the room, I would charge you eight copper pieces – a very reasonable price, if I do say so myself. We also have a fine washhouse available – if you wished for your water to be hot rather than cold, I'm afraid I would have to charge you another two copper pieces. So, ten coppers, or one silver piece if you prefer, will buy you a day and night of the finest accommodation that Hasufeld affords."
"I have no copper pieces, nor silver either," replied Pallando, reaching under his blue robes for a hefty purse that had been offered him by the King as a stipend. "Perhaps one of these will suffice?" He removed from the purse a gold piece, and held it up to the innkeeper, its shiny sides flashing in the firelight as he did so.
Rollo's jaw dropped in astonishment. "A gold sovereign!" he cried. "I haven't seen one of those for an age! Why sir, that would buy you the best room and board this establishment has to offer for near a month!"
"Well, it's all I have for you," replied Pallando. "But instead of a month's room and board, when I require only a day's, I would use the remaining value of this gold sovereign to purchase from you information, and perhaps some introductions as well."
"I'm all yours sir," replied Rollo, as he sat down on the bench across the table from Pallando. "Information, introductions – I'm entirely at your disposal!"
"My thanks, good sir," smiled Pallando, pushing the gold piece across the wooden table at the innkeeper – who snatched it up and pocketed it with a move so quick that even the Wizard's keen eyes could barely follow it.
Pallando then began to question the innkeeper at length about Dorwinion and the lands about, both East and West – though particularly in the East. He noted that Rollo shied away from questions about the lands beyond the Eastern shore of the Inland Sea, and tried to steer the conversation to the lands to the West and North. Pallando choose to accommodate him for a time, and at length remarked that he was surprised that he had not seen any Elves in Dorwinion. "For they are fond of the waters of rivers and seas, and of the fruits and nectar of the vine, and there are all of these things aplenty in this land," observed the Wizard.
"Say you so?" replied the innkeeper, a frown marring his golden-bearded face. "Well, it is true indeed that we have no Elvish wights in this land, thank the gods. Our distant Northern kindred by Lake Esgaroth, of the Lake-Town and of Dale, trade with the Elves of the Greenwood. Still, that is their affair. The Lake-men and Dale-men are a strange folk in any event, who have long been sundered from us; even our speech has grown apart, so now we must use the Common Tongue of the Gondor-men when we would have dealings with each other."
"Indeed," replied the Wizard. It was not the first time that he had noted hostility to the Elves amongst mortals, which seemed to grow the stronger the further East he traveled. "But now," he continued, "if I may return to an earlier vein of our conversation, which I would mine anew. I would hear tell more of the wild Easterlings, for I am a scholar of much lore that you would deem curious. Those wild Men are of interest to me, fierce and fell though they might appear to you. Tell me, how stand matters between the Men or Dorwinion, and the Men of Rhun? Indeed, what kinship have you to the Rhunlings, if any? For such matters seem but little known to the Gondor-men, who ever face West rather than East."
Rollo's blue eyes glared fiercely, and his face flushed red. "You are an outlander, Wizard, and ignorant of our ways. So I will forgive your foolish remarks, though I will not forget them. But we Men of Dorwinion are no kin of the Rhunlings! The Rhunlings speak no tongue that we can understand. They are not even truly Men, I reckon; for they live like beasts, and wear the undressed hides of beasts, and I daresay smell like beasts too. They slay each other as readily as our people, for they are divided into many warring tribes. They have no proper tools or weapons, using only those made out of wood or stone, or sometimes of copper. Yet there are many of them, and they are fierce and dangerous; if it were not for the armies of the Gondor-men, we would be hard-pressed to keep the peace in these lands. The Rhunlings could not drive us out, mind; but they could burn our crops, and slay our beasts, and ruin our trade, and we would live in misery and want on their account. Curse the lot of them!"
"Calm yourself please, my dear Rollo," replied the Wizard, raising his palms in supplication. "I meant no offense."
The innkeeper muttered under his breath, but then nodded. "Aye, well, forgive my outburst," he replied more calmly. "Your speech isn't quite like that of the Gondor-men, but your question made me think of them at their worst; all pride and pomp, and willful ignorance of us lesser Men, as they think of us. Yet I see that it was but an honest inquiry on your part."
"Indeed it was," replied Pallando. "But I'm afraid I must ask you something even more shocking. Do you know any of the captains on the local fishing or trading vessels, now in port, who would be willing to bear a passenger to the Eastern shore?"
"Who on earth would wish to make such a journey?" replied Rollo, looking doubtfully at the Wizard. "Many fishing vessels sail regularly to the shores of Rhun, for there are good fishing grounds there – but they stay at least an arrowshot away from the coast, for oft the Rhunlings spy on them, and would gladly capture one of our ships to loot it if they could. Aye, and to slay its crew as well, simply for the malice of it."
"I'm pleased to hear the sea-routes East are well known to your captains," replied Pallando. "But I myself am the passenger who wishes to make this journey."
"Sir!" cried Rollo, his face blanching pale, and looking really frightened for a moment, before he began to regain his composure. "Sir, pardon my ill manners, but surely you must be a might touched, to contemplate such a voyage! Even if a captain could be found to bear you to the shores of Rhun, you would never return! Your head would be decorating the fetish-tent of one of the Rhunling tribes before the nightfall of your arrival on that ill-fated shore!"
"I very much doubt that will be my fate," smiled Pallando. "A curious fellow I may seem to your eyes, a reedy scholar from the Westlands no doubt. But there is far more to me than meets the eye. The entire garrison of the Gondor-men here at Hasufeld could not hinder me in the least if I set my powers against them. Nor are the simple Rhunlings any threat to me."
Rollo pulled back from the table, his face now set and grim. "I wish now I had not accepted your gold sovereign, stranger," he said. "For naught but the powers of the Black Arts could allow one old man to slay two-score and ten armed soldiers, let alone an entire tribe of fierce Rhunlings, and we will have no truck nor trade with necromancers in these parts." Pallando noted that the singing from the other tables had died suddenly, and that many fierce blue eyes were now glaring at him with suspicion from across the room. Only the Gondorian soldier, who was indeed deep in his cups, seemed indifferent to the innkeeper's remarks.
"You misunderstand me, sir," replied Pallando, his eyes now dark and hard. "I never mentioned word of the arts of the Enemy – and indeed, I am tempted to take sore offence myself, that you would in any way compare my skills to his. But you did accept my gold sovereign, and I mean to hold you to your word. Before tomorrow morning, you will introduce me to whatever sea captain you deem most likely to accept a passenger to the East – and be sure to tell him I will pay him much gold as a reward for his labours. What happens to me after that is no concern of his or yours."
As the other occupants of the common room began to rise from their tables and hurriedly exit the inn, glaring again at Pallando and whispering darkly amongst themselves, the innkeeper nodded reluctantly, and began to consider which captain he could call upon to bear this blue-robed madman to the farther shore.
After much searching along the docks, Rollo had found only a single captain, one Hrothgar by name, who was willing to bear Pallando to the shores of Rhun. It had taken an offer of three gold sovereigns to secure Hrothgar's ship for that purpose – which was doubtless nearly three times what such a voyage was worth. Pallando, however, considered it far beneath his dignity to haggle over coin with any mortal Man, and paid the enormous sum to the captain without comment.
After the Wizard had departed from the pier for his room at the inn, Hrothgar had intimated to Rollo that he was of more than half of a mind to keep this foolish Westron's gold and set sail from Hasufeld to another port along the shores of Dorwinion forthwith, rather than fulfill his obligations and risk a landing on the shores of Rhun. However, Rollo warned him in graphic terms of the Wizard's claim to mastery of the Black Arts - for all magical operations were Black Arts to his own stolid mind, Pallando's denials notwithstanding. He convinced the captain that to cheat such a sorcerer might bring calamity not only on himself and his crew, but to the entire land of Dorwinion and its people.
So in the end, Hrothgar reluctantly agreed to keep his word. At dawn the next morning Pallando, well-fed, well-rested and refreshed, found the sea captain - a tall, slim man, dressed in a beige oilskin with matching trowsers, whose golden beard half-covered a scar that ran from his right temple to his chin - standing on the pier by a gankplank that led to his sleek-hulled longship.
"Good morning to you, kind sir," offered Pallando, who then turned his gaze to the longship, noting with surprise that the head of a ferocious dragon had been carved into the prow. To the Wizard's eye, this rickety little craft, propelled by banks of wooden oars, and held together by nothing more than tar and nails, was hardly more than a floating barrel when compared to the enchanted Swan Ships fashioned by the Sea Elves of Avallone. But, he shrewdly recognized that Hrothgar would not understand such a comparison, nor appreciate it if he did.
"A fine vessel indeed, Captain Hrothgar," said Pallando diplomatically, turning his gaze back to the man. "Rollo chose well in selecting you for this mission. But tell me, where is your crew? I don't imagine you intend to row this vessel yourself."
"In town," responded Hrothgar warily, his Common Speech more heavily accented than Rollo's. "I told my men we'd set sail an hour after dawn. How many actually show up this morning, we'll see."
"Why would they not 'show up', as you put it, kind mariner?" enquired Pallando.
Hrothgar was on the verge of telling him to mind his business, but gazing into the Wizard's eyes, which seemed to shift curiously between various shades of blue – now clear and bright, now deep and dark - he remembered Rollo's warning about this outlander's sorcerous powers, and wisely held his temper in check. "Not all of them are keen on a trip to the shores of Rhun," was all he would tell the Wizard, who decided to accept the explanation rather than enquire further.
For some time, Pallando and Hrothgar stood on the pier in silence – the Wizard deep in contemplation, and the captain deep in calculation, silently cursing the fate that had led him, in his greed for a few gold sovereigns, to accept a sorcerer as cargo on his ship. Then, as the Sun rose higher in the East, and the folk of Hasufeld began to emerge from their houses for another day's work, a group of a dozen or so men, all of Dorwinion, and clad in sailor's garb like that of Hrothgar, made their way toward the pier, eyeing Pallando doubtfully.
"So that's all of you that managed to show up, is it?" grunted Hrothgar. "Where are Grimbold, Grima, and the others? We're short by fully eight men."
The crew muttered amongst themselves, and then shook their heads.
"So none of you sea rats know, eh?" scowled Hrothgar. "Well, I know I've no use for sailors who defy my orders at the first whiff of danger. If I'm willing to risk my neck for gold, there's no reason you lubbers shouldn't be willing to do just the same! Grimbold and his friends can find a new master when I return from this voyage; they won't be sailing on the Dragon's Breath again."
One of the sailors, an aging man with a long graying beard, muttered a few guttural phrases under his breath in the tongue of Dorwinion.
"What's that, Odda?" asked Hrothgar in the Common Tongue, glaring fiercely at the old man. "You say you're only risking your necks for silver, while I plan to keep most of the gold myself? Well, you're right. And if you don't like it, you can join Grimbold and his crew in their search for a new master – if you think any other master would have you at your age." Odda frowned, but then bowed his head, sullen in his defeat.
"Well, this has all been quite fascinating," said Pallando dryly, "but might I ask that we please get under way as soon as possible? I should like to reach my destination before the year is out."
"You heard this fine gentleman, lads," said Hrothgar. "Up the gangplank, and to your oars! You'll just have to row harder to make up for the absence of your mates."
The men scowled and cursed, but soon obeyed Hrothgar's orders, assuming their stations on the benches, with at least one man for each of the ten oars. Pallando followed Hrothgar onto the ship, and the Captain then raised the gangplank, untied the ropes that secured the vessel to the pier, and took his place by the steering-oar at the stern of the ship, Pallando standing by his side.
"And, row!" shouted Hrothgar. The men set to, and within a quarter of an hour the Dragon's Breath had navigated its way out of the harbour, past the sandspit, and into the open waters of the Inland Sea, setting a course eastward for the shores of Rhun.
Some five days later, about three hours after sunrise, Pallando stood by the prow of the ship, holding his cloak tight about himself to keep out the chill of the East Wind, and gazing intently at the shore of Rhun that stretched along the horizon. With some disappointment, he noted that it appeared no different from the sand dunes and grasses that lined the shore of Dorwinion, save that there were no traces of habitation by Men, or for that manner by anyone.
"A barren land, is not, Captain?" asked the Wizard, turning to Hrothgar, who stood amidship, supervising the rowing of his weary men, while another crewman guided the steering oar. Hrothgar gave him a gimlet-eyed stare, and then turned his attention back to his men. "You'll find out soon enough whether it's bare of Rhunlings, sir," was all Hrothgar would say of the matter.
"I should hope it is not," said Pallando with a frown, "for then my mission would be in vain."
Shaking his head with disgust, and muttering under his breath, Hrothgar turned his back on the Wizard and returned to his post at the steering oar, sending the sailor who manned it back to his bench.
At length, the Dragon's Breath, which like all the longboats of Dorwinion had a shallow hull that allowed it to navigate in water as little as four feet deep, sailed to just beyond an arrowshot of the sandy shore, some three-hundred paces as it would be measured on dry land. Hrothgar shouted an order, and one of the crewmen got up from his bench and dropped the anchor into the foaming waters, while the rest released their oars, rubbing their sore arms with relief.
"We are still some distance from land, Captain," noted Pallando with displeasure. "I don't intend to swim to shore like a fish."
"And I don't intend to lose my ship to the Rhunlings," shot back Hrothgar. "That shore may appear barren, but two score of those devils could be hiding behind that sand dune even as we speak. We'll use the skiff for your landing."
"So be it," sighed Pallando. "As long as we land soon. This voyage with your surly crew has more than tried my patience as it is."
He certainly seems eager to die today, thought Hrothgar, though he kept his opinion to himself. He shouted more orders at his crew, and they moved to the stern of the vessel, using winches to raise the small skiff that was stowed opposite the steering-oar over the side of the Dragon's Breath, and then lower it into the choppy waters of the sea. Hrothgar barked orders to the crew, and four of them vaulted over the side of the ship, landing expertly in the bobbing skiff. They took up the wooden paddles that were stowed inside the vessel and sat on the benches, waiting patiently.
Other crew members threw Pallando's modest baggage into the skiff, and then stared at Pallando, grinning at the thought of witnessing this mad outlander miss the little boat and fall headlong into the sea. But to their surprise and disappointment, the Wizard vaulted lightly over the rail of the ship with greater agility than any of the sailors, and landed evenly in the skiff, quietly assuming his place on the empty front bench, while clutching his crystal staff tightly in his pale hands.
Hrothgar frowned, and then descended briefly into the open hold that lay amidships, returning with a large, locked case of polished dark wood. He removed a key from a chain about his neck, unlocked the case, and took out several polished iron swords and two sets of bows and arrows, which he distributed to the crew in the boat, while thrusting one of the swords beneath his own leathern belt. He closed the case, stowed it back in the hold, and then jumped into the skiff himself, taking his place at the prow beside Pallando.
"Now we're ready," Hrothgar muttered half to himself. Ignoring Pallando, he turned to his crew, and said, "Put your paddles to work, lads, and put some muscle into it! The sooner we reach the shore, the sooner we'll be safely back aboard the Dragon's Breath."
Grim and silent now, the four crewmen set to work, and within a quarter of an hour they had navigated the choppy waters to within a few paces of the beach. At a nod from Hrothgar, one of the crewmen, a lad in his twenties, said a prayer to the gods, took up Pallando's saddlebag, and then leaped over the side of the skiff into the shallow water. Gasping at its cold caress, he waded to the front of the skiff, and pulled it by a small rope attached to its prow onto the shore, so that both the Wizard could be deposited on the beach dry and intact – as per Hrothgar's agreement with him. What happened to their passenger after that was of no further concern to Hrothgar or his crew.
Just as the crewman had dropped the saddlebag on the sands, and finished hauling the prow of the skiff onto the beach, he gave a blood-curdling scream. Then dropped to the ground, a crude arrow embedded between his shoulders!
"Rhunlings!" cried Hrothgar, drawing his sword and plunging into the water along with the rest of his horrified crew, as they stared up at the sand dune that loomed over the beach, its crest some fifty feet above them. Over the dune poured fully a score of Rhunling warriors, their ragged furs flapping in the wind, their greasy black hair tangled and knotted, their stone-stipped spears and arrows at the ready, their deep, harsh voices raised in a terrible cry, like the howling of wolves on the hunt.
"Quick, how is Beorn?" cried Hrothgar, who stood now on the beach, his sword bared against his foes, as the other crewmen took up their wounded companion. The captain's rude manners and rough ways could not belie his impulse to defend one of his kinfolk, when threatened by the barbarians of Rhun.
"He breathes not! They have slain him!" cried the crewmen.
"Dogs!" snarled Hrothgar, turning to the Rhunlings. "Rush in and die!"
Things would then have gone ill for the captain, for half-a-dozen of the Rhunlings were armed with crude bows of horn and sinew, and they fired a volley of stone-stipped arrows at Hrothgar. But to Hrothgar's amazement, Pallando intervened, leaping out of the skiff onto the shore, and deflecting the arrows with a lightning-fast move of his crystal staff.
"Back to your ship!" cried Pallando, turning to the captain. "I will deal with this lot in my own way."
"Nay, we will not flee yet!" cried Hrothgar, shaking his sword with fury. "They have slain one of our own blood. We claim the blood price! Death to the Rhunlings!" The other Dorwinion-men, having laid Beorn in the skiff, now took up their swords and prepared to charge at their howling foes, who were almost upon them.
They never got the chance, for the Blue Wizard had seen enough of this folly. Raising his crystal staff high into the air, he spoke a terrible Word of Command. There was a sudden flash, as of lightening, after which the sky darkened for a moment. Then the light of the Sun shone on the beach once more, but both Rhunling and Dorwinion-man had ceased their charges, and now stared in wonder and fear at the blue-robed figure before them, who seemed to have grown in stature until he was nearly a giant in their eyes.
"Behold!" cried Pallando, in a suddenly deep voice that echoed for miles along the shore. "Drop your weapons and pray to your gods, men of Rhun, for the Dead have risen to claim their due!"
To the awestruck horror of both the Rhunlings and Hrothgar's crew, the sands beneath their feet began to shift to and fro, as if something stirred beneath. Suddenly, from out of the sands, white claws and withered arms shot forth; the arms and hands of living skeletons! Creaking and clacking, fully a score of fleshless skeletons pulled themselves up from the sands of the beach, their empty sockets fixing on the Rhunlings, as they stretch out their bony arms and began shambling toward them.
Screaming with terror, the Rhunlings dropped their weapons and fell to the ground, paralyzed by fear. The Dorwinion-men were hardly in any better condition as, clutching their swords with trembling hands, they prayed loudly to their gods and shrank back from the Wizard, whose mastery of the Black Arts (as it seemed to them) was now all too clear.
Pallando, holding his staff firmly in his right hand, rushed toward the skiff, up nearly to the rim of his boots in seawater, and with his free left hand plucked the arrow intact from Beorn's back, glancing at it briefly before casting it onto the shore. Then he turned to Hrothgar and said, "Be silent, and listen!"
Pale and shaking, Hrothgar turned his gaze from the undead horrors to the Wizard. "Beorn yet lives," said Pallando rapidly. "The wound is not deep. He only ceased breathing for a moment from the shock of the arrow's impact. Take him back to your ship, cleanse his wound with wine from your hold, rub such salves as you have on it, and bind it with clean cloth. With any luck he should pull through and live for many a long year. Now go! Quickly!"
Needing no encouragement for haste, Hrothgar and his crew pushed the skiff back fully into the water, leapt into it, dropped their swords and took up their paddles, and rowed for dear life back to the safety of the Dragon's Breath. So quickly did they row that not ten minutes later they were back on board, and the ship had already weighted anchor as its oars pulled it at top speed into the West.
Meanwhile, Pallando had turned his attention back to the Rhunlings, who lay moaning and trembling on the ground as the skeletons ambled amongst them, gibbering and grasping at them with their bony hands – though none of them made contact with the terrified men. Satisfied that he had made his point, Pallando pointed his staff at the skeletons, and spoke another Word. There was again a flash of light, and the skeletons disappeared forthwith, leaving the defeated Rhunlings crawling in the sand.
Pallando stared wordlessly at the Rhunlings for some minutes, as it slowly dawned on them that their supernatural foes had disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as they had appeared. Then they stared at the blue-robed figure before them, who they realized had commanded both the attack and the retreat of the terrible army of the dead, and who held their fate in his hands.
All then pressed their heads into the dust as a gesture of obeisance; save one alone, who at length stood to his feet, clutching a large club that appeared to be made of driftwood. Pallando noted his appearance closely. He was of medium height and heavy build, with long, black, greasy hair and beard, olive skin, a broad face bearing a snubbed nose, and hard brown eyes. He was garbed in dirty grey firs, and bore a necklace that appeared to be made of wolf's teeth as his only adornment. He returned the Wizard's stare for only a moment, before looking to his Men and shouting at them in harsh, guttural phrases in his dialect of the tongue of Rhun; encouraging them as it seemed to pull themselves up from the ground and stand once again on their feet.
Pallando had read something of the tongue of the Rhunlings in an ancient scroll at Minas Anor, in which a long-dead scribe of Gondor had sought to translate into the Common Speech the most important words and phrases of a handful Rhunling captives taken in the War of the Last Alliance. The Rhunling before Pallando spoke in what seemed to be a different dialect of a language that clearly had not stood still for the past thousand years; thus, the Blue Wizard could not understand all of the Man's words. Still, he understood enough, and hoped that he could make himself understood to them in their own tongue.
"Who are you?" enquired Pallando, addressing the Rhunling with wolf's teeth necklace.
"I am the karkhan chief, Targul-rakan!" said the Man, turning to the Wizard. "What name have you?"
"You may call me what you wish," replied Pallando.
"Perhaps I call you foreign dog?" grinned Targul-rakan.
"Have a care, o chief" frowned Pallando, gesturing with his staff."Have you forgotten so soon that the Dead rise at my command? I will not stay their wrath a second time."
The other Rhunlings quailed, and dropped to their knees again. Targul-rakan remained on his feet, but the grin faded from his black-bearded face, and he appeared chastened.
"Well said, outlander," replied Targul-rakan. "You are strong, not weak. Bargash. That is good. I name you Aral-rakan."
Blue Lord,thought Pallando. "I accept the name you have granted me, great Targul-rakan," he replied.
"Then tell me, Aral-rakan," said Targul-rakan. "What seek you in this land? No man comes here out of the West, but the Dor-win-on Men, to steal our fish, or the Gon-door Men, to slay our people. Ulan-gher!"
"I have come to offer you aid, o citizens of Rhun",replied Aral-rakan.
"Citizens?" glowered Targul-rakan. "Rhun? What say you?"
"Are you not Rhunlings?" asked Aral-rakan, puzzled.
"We are the Wolf Clan!" shouted Targul-rakan, and he proceeded to prove his kinship to the fell beasts of the wilderness by howling at the top of his lungs, grinning proudly when he had finished his demonstration.
"Ah. Excuse my error, great Targul-rakan,"replied the Blue Wizard.
These people know not even the nation to which they belong, beyond their own tribe, he thought secretly. My work will not be easy. He returned this attention to the barbarian chief, who was now speaking of his own accord.
"…hate the Turtle Clan, hate the Bear Clan. Hate the towheads of the Northwest, of Dor-win-on," said Targul-rakan. "Hate the dogs of the Southwest, of Gon-door. Slay them all, if we could. Ulan-gher!We are the mighty Wolf Clan! We are the blood-drinkers, the widow-makers, feared by all!"
"No doubt all you say is true, Targul-rakan," replied Aral-rakan demurely"Yet do you truly hate the other Clans of your people? For surely you Men east of the Inland Sea are one folk, even if divided and scattered. Have you never made common cause with each other?"
"We are enemies!" spat Targul-rakan. "Not even in my father's father's time have we fought alongside the other Clans. Only in the days of the Mordor-rakan, the Dark Lord who was slain at the dawn of time, did we fight beside the other Clans against those dogs, the Gon-door men."
"Indeed,"frowned Aral-rakan. "And when you say you hate the Gondor-men – is it truly hate?" he continued. "Is it not envy?"
"En-vie?" repeated Targul-rakan, his black brows frowning as his mouth chewed on the strange word, which had no equivalent in his tongue. "What say you? We love, or we hate. I know not this en-vie."
"Would you not like to live as they do?" asked Aral-rakan. "To have fine houses of stone, rather than live under the sky? To tame horses, and ride them as they do? To have tools and weapons of steel…"
"Steel!" grinned Targul-rakan. "We know this word. Steel, the Gon-door men have. They have slain many of the Wolf-clan with it, many of my people, gur-ghelan. Steel makes the Gon-door men strong, very strong. We know not its secrets. Can you teach us?" He eyed the Wizard shrewdly. "Much in your debt will the Wolf Clan be if you teach us the secret of steel, Aral-rakan."
"Indeed," replied Aral-rakan, who could easily have read the barbarian's thoughts on this matter even if he had not seen directly into his mind. "But it is not merely of weapons I would teach you, great Targul-rakan. I will teach you the secret of steel, and other secrets besides – for a price."
"Name your price," replied Targul-rakan, spitting into the sand, and staring warily and this strange outlander, possessed of unknown powers. "What wish you, Aral-rakan? Women? Furs? Seashells? The heads of enemies?"
"None of these things," sighed Aral-rakan. "Rather, you must allow me to live with you, to live amongst your people for as long as I wish. And you and your shamans must listen to my words – for I will have many things to say to you, concerning how to better your lives. You wish for steel, and other things that the Gondor-men have? You will have them, and not through raiding and plunder, but through learning how to make them yourselves – if you accept my price."
The Men of the Wolf Clan stared at each other, and whispered darkly. Targul-rakan turned and snarled at them, raising his club in the air, and they cowed at his feet. Grunting with satisfaction, he turned back to the Wizard.
"Done, Aral-rakan!" he cried. He stooped to the ground, picked up a handful of sand, and threw it into the air. Aral-rakan stooped likewise, repeating his gesture.
"You have sealed the bargain!" grinned Targul-rakan. "Follow me, wise Aral-rakan. To the tents of the Wolf Clan I will take you."