The Black Serpents of Umbar
As the searing heat of midday set the dry air shimmering, and even the hardy date palms that lined the road seemed to wilt under the Sun's angry glare, Alatar, mounted on his tired steed, slowly approached the red sandstone walls that marked the Northern Gate of Umbar, southernmost bastion of the empire forged by the Gondor-men. He had ridden south for many weeks, through the pine woods of Ithilien, over the hard, barren lands of Harondor, and so to the sunkissed lands that never knew snow or frost; the groves of lemon and date trees that hugged the shore of turquoise Bay of Umbar. Now, the first stage of his southward journey through the lands east of Anduin was near an end.
Alatar drew close to the Northern Gate of the city, staring up at one of its adjacent watchtowers, which was dwarfed by a vast Gondorian banner bearing the design of the White Tree on its black field that flew from a pinnacle of the battlements. Turning his eyes back to the ground, he now found himself amid a crowd of carts and pedestrians toiling over the hot, dusty road, and was reminded of his first approach to Osgiliath ten years before. He noted that though a few bold setters from Gondor walked or rode amongst them, these Men were native Umbarians for the most part; like and yet unlike their northern kin. Their gaudy, flowing robes of flaxen cloth would alone have told them apart. Moreover, while in Gondor those of Numenorean descent had long intermarried with the hardy folk native to the lower valley of the Anduin, in Umbar the Men of Numenor had long mixed their blood with the tribes of the neighbouring Haradrim. Thus, while many of the Gondor-men now tended to a broader and more powerful build than that of the tall, slim Numenoreans, the Umbarians for the most part were lean and lanky, with narrow, hawk-like features, and skin that would have been bronze even had it never been seared by the heat of the southern Sun.
Alatar had noted the mode of speech of these Men as he passed south; they spoke a dialect that was akin to the Common Tongue, yet more archaic, and mixed with many words borrowed from the Haradrim and other southern tribes. The Umbarians could, when they wished, make it difficult for the Gondorians to understand them. That merely reinforced the dim view taken by the Men of Gondor of their Southron cousins; for the Umbarians, as descendents of the King's Men of Numenor, those who long ago had chosen to serve Sauron, were ancient blood-enemies of the kingdom of Isildur and Anarion. They chafed under the yoke placed on them by their hated Gondorian kinsmen, even as the Gondorians viewed them with a curious mixture of condescension, suspicion, and fear.
Turning his attention from these thoughts to the present, Alatar was forced to bring his steed to a sudden halt, as a group of Men in front of him, who had been walking on foot, was ordered to stop by the black tunic'd Gondorian soliders who manned the broad arched gate in the sandstone walls. It appeared that some sort of altercation was on the verge of taking place, for the party of half-a-dozen gaudily-dressed Umbarians stood shaking their fists and cursing at the soldiers, even as those soldiers had drawn their long steel swords, shouting threats and commands, and their comrades on the battlements above the gate took aim with their longbows at the Umbarians. Alatar viewed the scene with keen interest, though he had decided for the moment to watch rather than to intervene.
"Back!" shouted one of the Gondorian soliders. "Back, and fall in line as ordered!"
"Let us pass yonder, sirrah!" demanded one of the Umbarians, in a deep, resonant voice. He was a tall, lean man with an aquiline nose and a heavy scar running along his swarthy cheek, whose eyes were yet as grey as those of a Gondor-man, suggesting his own descent from the Men of Numenor. "We are citizens of Umbar all," continued the scar-faced man, "and need not thy let or leave to pass the gates of our own city!"
"Citizens of Umbar all, my foot!" shot back the soldier. "And you need my let or leave for whatever I say you need it for, see? We won't tolerate high and mighty talk from you damned pirates!"
"Thy father was a thief and a drunkard," jeered the Umbarian in reply, "and thy mother sold herself to beggars before she abandoned her gutter-dropped brat in an army tent!"
He was set to continue with his extraordinary, if fabricated account of the guard's paternity when his colourful slurs were interrupted by the approach of two-score heavily-armed Gondorian soldiers who had marched double-time from their barracks to the gate, and quickly surrounded the Umbarians, spears and shields at the ready. The Umbarians reached into the folds of their crimson and turquoise robes, ready to draw their short curved swords, when a sudden word from a young Gondorian officer halted them in their tracks.
"Is this your day to die?" asked the man, his white-plumed helmet gleaming in the harsh sunlight as he strode quickly through the gate. "Draw your swords, and it shall surely be so!"
The Umbarians glared at him hatefully for some moments, but then one-by-one withdrew their hands from their robes; defeated, and yet as wary and dangerous as jungle cats caught in a hunter's trap.
The officer, his grey eyes assessing them coldly, grunted, and the turned to the soldier who had been bandying words with his Umbarian foe. "Now then, corporal," snapped the officer, "what's with this ruckus? Our standing orders are not to interrupt the passage of men or goods through the gates, except for due cause."
"I'll tell you the cause right enough, sir," replied the solider, frowning as he nodded at the Umbarians. "A dozen years I've been stationed in this city, till my skin's burned near as dark as one of its native folk. And if I've learned one thing, it's how to spot an Umbarian from within the pale of our borders, from one of those Haradrim who live in the deserts beyond. I've seem enough of that lot on desert patrol to tell the difference."
"Get to the point, soldier," sighed the officer. "The Sun burns bright today, and I would rather return to the shade of the barracks than roast my skull under this steel helmet."
"The point, sir," said the soldier, with a trace of wounded pride, "is I'd bet my life and honour that only one of them fellows surrounded by our boys there is an Umbar-man! Aye, the one who shot his mouth off at me just before your arrival, sir. The rest are all Haradrim, sure as I live and breathe!"
The man he had designated as an Umbarian cursed under his breath, but remained silent. The others glared sullenly at the soldier, as the officer stared at them with alarm, before turning his gaze back to their antagonist.
"Haradrim! Are you sure, man?"
"Sure as I live and breathe, as I said sir!" replied the solider. "See how much darker they are than that uppity fellow, and how their features are even more sharp? That's the stamp of a Harad-man, sir, as any lad in our garrison can tell you."
The officer frowned, but said nothing. He had been posted at Umbar for less than six months, and had not bothered to learn much of its natives, wishing nothing more than to survive his posting long enough to arrange a transfer to the cooler lands that lay northward. He could hardly tell a Harad-man from an Elf; but, he felt it impolitic to make such an admission in front of his subordinates.
"Yes, I do see now," replied the officer, with what he hoped was a sage tone. "Perhaps you're right, corporal."
"Indeed I am, sir," replied the corporal triumphantly. "And it's strictly against the King's law for a Harad-man to pass the walls of Umbar, is it not?"
"That it is," replied the officer, sniffing disdainfully as he glared at the brightly-clad imposters and their Umbarian spokesman. "The King has long forbidden Haradrim to pass these walls," announced the officer, as if explaining the matter to schoolchildren, "lest they act as spies, and use what information they can gather of the city's defenses to launch a successful raid on Umbar. Though I daresay that many of these Umbarian snakes would be perfectly willing to freely give whatever information they have to the Haradrim, purely out of spite for us."
"Sir," offered the scar-faced Umbarian, whom Alatar noted had licked his lips with a trace of apparent nervousness before speaking. "Mayhap this corporal's brain has been baked under his own helm, like bread in a clay oven, for no doubt he has stood under the hot Sun for many hours this day. But he speaks false. We are Umbar-men, one and all! Ask my brothers here to use the Common Tongue with you; no matter that their accent may seem strange to your ear, surely you shall know that they are Men of Umbar!"
"Indeed?" asked the officer, who was growing bored and impatient with the whole affair. "You've a sharper tongue than is good for you, I'll warrant, if you're bold enough to accuse one of the King's soldiers of a falsehood. But as for the citizenship of your fellows, and whether you are in fact a traitor to His Majesty, leading a pack of Haradrim within these walls; we'll leave that for the Magistrate to decide. Corporal, disarm these dogs, and march them double quick to the holding-pen nigh the courts! And inform the clerk there of the charges to bring against them."
In the blink of an eye, the accused Haradrim and their Umbarian comrade found spear-points held to their throats, as long arms reached into their robes and withdrew their wicked-looking short swords. Their arms were bound with rope, and they found themselves marched through the gates by the soldiers who had surrounded them, just as the officer had ordered. But as the scar-faced Umbarian passed by the officer and his corporal, he turned to them, his grey eyes glaring fiercely, and addressed them in a voice seething with hatred and malevolence:
"Dogs of Gondor!" he hissed. "Fear the serpent's shadow! Neither of you shall live out this night!" A cuff to the ear from one of the soldiers who had pushed him through the gates silenced him. Alatar noticed that while the officer yawned with manifest unconcern at an idle threat, before returning through the gate to the barracks, the corporal whose keen eyes had set in motion the whole affair turned pale, and whispered under his breath a furtive prayer to the Valar to protect him.
As the corporal and his comrades resumed their post by the gates, Alatar then slowly rode toward them. He showed them his letter of marque from the King, but to his surprise the soldiers seemed too enervated by the confrontation of moments before to pay it much heed, and the corporal waved him through cursorily.
"It appears I don't look like a Harad-man," muttered Alatar to himself as he rode through the gates and emerged once again into the light of the Sun. "It certainly would have been amusing if they had tried to arrest me." He considered the aspects of the scene he had just witnessed that were worth further enquiry, and then, duly noting them in his mind, he pressed forward into the narrow, twisting streets, riding past the mud-baked houses and shops and pillared sandstone mansions of Umbar.
Passing a crowd of pedestrians, he turned a corner, and found himself at the crest of a low, broad hill, which offered a sweeping view of the city and its environs. At the heart of the city was the vast, solid Citadel, built of white marble, which had been constructed by the Numenoreans two-thousand years before when they had first established Umbar as their chief southern colony on the coast of Middle Earth. It was here, according to the records Alatar had read in the archives of Minas Anor, that well-nigh twelve-hundred years ago Ar-Pharazon the Golden had taken council with his generals and admirals, before setting out on his ill-fated scheme of capturing and humiliating Sauron the Abhorred. Curiously, considering the events that had followed, the capture of Sauron by the legions of Numenor was remembered with pride by the Gondor-men. Indeed, casting his eye over the shimmering waters to the headland that sheltered the Bay of Umbar from the Western Sea beyond, Alatar could clearly see the mighty tower of smooth-sided marble, topped with a shining sphere of crystal, that the Gondorians had build shortly after incorporating Umbar into their empire in order to commemorate the so-called Great Victory over Sauron. After seeing the contemptuous attitude that the Gondorians apparently reserved for their Umbarian kin, Alatar half-wondered if the Gondorians had built the monument less out of commemoration for the false surrender of Sauron than to humiliate the Umbarians with a display of Gondor's own power.
Turning his attention back to the city, Alatar noted that the shifting maze of streets on its outskirts gave way to broad, straight roads nearer to the Citadel; ancient roads laid out by the Numenoreans, presumably, in the days before the city had grown haphazardly up the hill to touch its defensive outer walls. The roads converged on a large open space, which Alatar's keen eyes could see was crammed with stalls and pedestrians; the city's famed Central Market, full of exotic produce, sights and sounds that were no more than legends in the North of Middle Earth, yet were taken for granted by the Umbarians. "To the Market I shall go," said Alatar to no one in particular, "for there if anywhere I shall find the information I seek, so that I may plot the next stage of my journey."
"What information seek you, lord?" asked a small, high-pitched voice to Alatar's right. Glancing down with surprise from his steed, he noted a small boy of perhaps ten summers, dressed in dirty robes that had once been cream-coloured, whose features marked him as a young citizen of Umbar.
"What business is that of yours, my lad?" enquired Alatar evenly, though secretly he was intrigued by the boy's pluck in addressing a stranger mounted on a charger. He continued riding down the hill at a canter, as the boy jogged beside him.
"The city's business is my business, lord," winked the boy. "Carnir at your service."
"It's yet to be determined whether I require your service," replied Alatar, pursing his lips.
"Vast is this city, my lord," persisted Carnir. "Vast as the King's City away north, 'tis said, and 'tis said also that Umbar is far harder to navigate. Only halt your steed for a moment, my lord, and I can help you find whatever it is that you seek in Umbar."
Sighing, Alatar pulled back on his horse's reins, bringing the animal to a halt, while Carnir stood to the right of its head. "A fine steed, my lord," whispered Carnir, patting the animal's flank. "It must be worth many gold sovereigns."
"That's certainly no affair of yours," snapped Alatar. "In the name of the Valar, boy, say your piece, or else let me be on my way! I take no pleasure in sitting here and roasting under my too-heavy robes."
Carnir frowned for a moment, but soon a mischevious smile lit up has face. "For me to lead you to whomever you seek, lord," replied Carnir, "you must first tell me your business. You are not a Gondor-man, are you?"
"I am from a distant land, north and west of here," replied Alatar guardedly.
"An Arnor-man, then," grinned Carnir. "Thought as much, I did, though your kindred seldom visit us here in the Sunlands."
"And to satisfy the rest of your curiosity," replied Alatar, "I am a scholar, and my business involves learning what I can of this land and its customs - preferably from a sage, yet one who is in some part aware of the ebb and flow of life about him, of the current and rumoured deeds and doings of his people. Know you such a man, lad?"
"Ho ho, so you're a spy!" grinned Carnir triumphantly.
"Not at all, little one!" replied Alatar, dismayed that he could feel a surge of alarm at a question from a young boy. "Not at all! My interest in this land is purely scholarly, purely academic!"
"Aca-what?" frowned Carnir.
"Never mind what it means, ragamuffin!" rejoined Alatar, determined now to direct the conversation back to his terms. "Know you such a man or not?"
Carnir was quiet for some moments, but then his face broke again into a grin. "Aye, I know such a man, lord. Ulzor the Scribe, who dwells on the far side of the Central Market. He knows many strange things, 'tis said, yet his affairs lead him to traffic with the common run of men."
"Then lead me to this Ulzor," smiled Alatar, "and you shall have my gratitude, and my blessing as well, young Carnir."
"More even than these things," replied Carnir with an innocent air, "would your humble servant appreciate a firm token of his lordship's generosity."
Sighing, Alatar reached into his leather purse. He had stayed at a few inns along the road through the settled lands north of Umbar, and so thankfully had had the opportunity to exchange one of his gold sovereigns for a purseful of silver and copper pieces. Drawing out one of the coppers, he leaned down from his steed, and held it out to the boy for inspection.
"Aye!" cried the boy, snatching the copper with delight. "Thou art most generous, lord! I shall surely be thy guide." Alatar, who had seen enough of the Umbarians on his road south to have fully expected the boy to haggle for more coin, was surprised that he accepted so trivial a fee in exchange for a long, thirsty journey through the city's crowded, twisting alleys and long, busy streets. But the boy had already run ahead, down the winding road that led into the labyrinth of streets at the base of the hill, and Alatar spurred his steed to a brisk trot in order to avoid losing sight of his diminutive guide.
As he wound his way through the narrow, twisting streets and alleys, led always by Carnir through the crush of men and women making their way to and fro, Alatar was struck again by the exotic quality of Umbar; as civilized as Gondor, and in part akin to it, yet strangely alien, as if when he had crossed the river Harnen on his road south he had entered into another world. Where the Gondor-men were silent and somber for the most part, the Umbar-men seemed constantly to be talking and gesturing to each other, animated by a frantic pulse of heat and motion that was the life-blood of this southernmost of cities. And where the Gondor-women were shy and modest, the women of Umbar were even more talkative than their men, and offered many eloquent curses and raucous catcalls that would have utterly shocked one of the stolid citizens of Osgliliath.
Indeed, Alatar's own curiosity soon turned to shock. For, as they rounded yet another corner into a long, straight road, Carnir looked back at him, and with a wicked grin said, "Now, lord, we have come to the Quarter of Little Virtue, that lies on this hither side of the Market. Does my lord wish to tarry awhile?"
Alatar looked about with astonishment at the many raven-haired young women, clothed scantily in garish frocks and dresses, who stood in the doorways of the mud-bricked houses of the road, gesturing meaningfully to male passersby, who responded to the women sometimes with crude jeers and curses, and sometimes by accompanying them into their houses. When Alatar found himself on the receiving end of several solicitations, he turned his gaze skyward, trying desperately to maintain his Wizardly dignity, and ordered Carnir in no uncertain terms to bear him straight to Ulzor the Scribe as he had agreed. Looking vaguely disappointed, though not entirely surprised, Carnir nodded, and proceeded to guide his mysterious charge through the bustling crowds toward the market, shocking Alatar even more by exchanging cheerful curses and insults with the women lining the street as he did so.
"There's something one would never see in Gondor," whispered Alatar to himself.
At length, passing out of the infamous quarter, they came to the threshold of the Central Market. This was like the market at Osgiliath in its general plan, yet fully five times the span of that market in length and width, full of traders, vendors and pedestrians, and crowded to the brim with literally thousands of stalls, bearing all manner of goods from the coasts of Gondor to the jungles of Far Harad. Strange spices and incenses, fruits and meats, robes and carpets, tools and works of metal and of wood, gemstones and flowers, ebon carvings and ivory tusks, all these things and many more were on display, amid an incessant din of haggling and shouting that surged and ebbed across the Market like the tidewaters of the Bay of Umbar.
Sticking close to Carnir, Alatar dismounted his steed, which he could not ride safely through such a labyrinth of narrow alleys and such a press of men, and led the animal by its reins with his left hand, while grasping his crystal staff with his right hand. He and Carnir negotiated their way across the Market to its farther, southern side, which lay nigh to the towering white Citadel, which Alatar could now see bore from one of its towers a banner of Gondor identical to that at the Northern Gate. As Carnir pushed his way through the crowd, he returned in equal measure the curses that the men that he jostled directed at him, and Alatar wondered at his courage in thus addressing his elders, any one of whom could have given him a sound thrashing if they had wished.
Finally, after more than two hours time negotiating the alleys of the Market, with the Sun progressing on its journey down into the West, Alatar and Carnir reached the far side, where the streets were a little less crowded than amid the stalls, so that Alatar remounted his steed. He then continued to follow the seemingly tireless Carnir, as the boy led him some distance to the south and west, away from the Citadel, and toward the warren of craftsmen's manufactories and warehouses that lay between the Citadel and the shore of the harbour. Carnir turned at last into a narrow alley between two warehouses, and indicated a wooden sign, engraved in the shape of a quill and an inkpot, which hung above a narrow doorway whose wooden shutters were thrown open, and which like many of the doorways of Umbar was veiled by a frill of colourful beads laced together on strings.
"The shop of Ulzor the Scribe!" beamed Carnir triumphantly. "You see, lord, I have led you hither through many snares and delays."
"So you have," replied Alatar dryly, "though it seems to me that not a few of the delays were due to your exercise of your own sharp tongue. But no matter. Take this second copper piece as your reward, and then be off with you."
Delighted, the boy took the coin and ran back to the Market, while Alatar dismounted, tying the reins of his horse to a peg mounted into the wall adjacent to the door of the shop. He pushed through the frill covering the doorway, and stood leaning on his staff and blinking for a moment, his eyes quickly adjusting to the dim light of the squalid little room, which was lit only by a single candle of tallow perched on the edge of a rickety wooden desk.
"A dark room for a scribe's work," said Alatar aloud.
"And yet light enough for my purposes," replied an aged, soft voice from the far side of the room. "Please, my lord, be seated on one of yon cushions in front of my desk, and make yourself as comfortable as you may."
Nodding, Alatar strode across the dingy room in two paces. He seated himself on an old straw-stuffed cushion that had seen better days, laying his staff on his lap, and staring with interest at the grey-bearded figure that sat cross-legged on a cushion behind the desk that separated them. The elderly man's black robes were a curious contrast to the gaudy dress favoured by his fellow Umbarians.
"Welcome, stranger from distant lands," continued the man, as he swept aside some inkpots and a few scrolls to clear a space on the desk in front of his guest. "I am Ulzor the Scribe. I see my little friend has led you hither. How may I be of service to you?"
"I seek information on certain matters," replied Alatar directly.
"I am but a humble scribe, my lord," demurred the man, in his soft, almost sibilant voice.
"Carnir says that you are a sage, and yet also aware of the deeds of men about you. Is that not so?" asked Alatar.
A smile flickered briefly across Ulzor's sallow face, as his dark eyes regarded the blue-robed stranger before him. "Aye, there is some truth to the lad's words," replied Ulzor. "I may be counted a sage by some, after my own fashion. Ask me what you will, and I shall do my best to assist you, in so far as a lowly commoner such as myself may be of assistance to a great lord, for such I perceive you to be."
"Then I shall begin with the first question that interests me," replied Alatar. "What is meant by the phrase, 'Fear the serpent's shadow'?"
Ulzor froze for a moment. Then, slowly, his body relaxed, though his voice now had a more wary air than before.
"Where have you heard such a strange phrase, my lord?" enquired the scribe. "It is not known to me."
"Do not dissimulate with me, scribe," replied Alatar forcefully, as he stared at Ulzor. Ulzor then noticed for the first time how the colour of this stranger's eyes shifted between varying shades of blue, and began to feel vaguely disquieted by his presence.
"Perhaps you need some manner of refreshing your memory?" enquired Alatar conversationally.
"No, my lord," replied Ulzor with a sullen air. "Now that I recall - at my age, memory does not function as well as it once did – now that I recall, perhaps I have heard the phrase before."
"And you know why it would strike fear into the heart of a man, even a soldier of Gondor?" asked Alatar.
Ulzor remained silent for a moment, and then replied "You tread on dangerous ground, stranger. Some stones are better left unturned, lest you stir what lies beneath."
"You might say I am a turner of stones by profession," replied Alatar. "And if that which lies beneath is not fit to endure the clean light of the Sun and Moon, all the more reason to expose it. Now I will ask you this question again, and I expect your answer. What does this phrase mean, and why would it strike fear even into the soldiers of Gondor?"
After some moments of silence, Ulzor replied "Soldiers of Gondor? Gondor imagines itself the master of this land. But there was a power that dwelt here, amongst many other places, long before Gondor was first imagined. And to those who recognize that power, the serpent is its token."
"I see," replied Alatar contemplatively. "The Black Serpent of Umbar, and before that of Numenor, in the final days before its fall. And there are still Men of Umbar under its influence, who strike at the Gondor-men by stealth and treachery, no doubt? And that is what is meant by the phrase, "Fear the serpent's shadow'?"
"You have guessed as much yourself, I deem," said Ulzor curtly.
"Indeed I have," said Alatar evenly. "And more besides. Despite your humble appearance, I for my part deem you a lord in your own right. You are descended from those lords of Umbar who ruled this land before its annexation by Gondor, and who trace their ancestry to the King's Men of Numenor. And you are also high placed in this Cult of the Black Serpent. Moreover you have instructed the boy Carnir to lead inquisitive foreigners to you, so that you may determine if they are spies who pose a threat to your schemes, or if they may prove useful pawns. Is that not so?"
Ulzor gave the Wizard a venomous look, but remained silent. He knew well that Gondor often hired foreigners as spies, on the hope that they might arouse fewer suspicions than would spies who were obviously Gondor-men. Now he began to realize to his displeasure that this outlander was no ordinary agent of Gondor whom Carnir had led into his shop, to feed with falsehoods or poisons as the case might require.
"Well, you need not fear that I will betray your secret to the Gondor-men," continued Alatar. "I swear by the Valar that I have not come here to deliver you to the executioner, but rather to help turn you and your kindred, and your distant cousins the Haradrim, away from the darkness and toward to the light."
"The light?" spat Ulzor. "And what light is that?"
"You know full well I refer to that light which dwells ever in the uttermost West," replied Alatar.
"The uttermost West?" sneered Ulzor, who no longer attempted to dissimulate. "Fool! 'Tis plain thou art no more than a lackey of the Valar, and what have those high and mighty lords ever cared for the fate of Men? It is to them we owe the fall of proud Numenor, and our exile in these outer lands."
"It is to the pride and folly of your ancestors, and the lies of Sauron the Abhorred, that you owe your fate," chided Alatar, his blue eyes narrowing in disapproval of Ulzor's blasphemy, and at his disrespectful use of the familiar form of address.
"Speak not thus of the Dark Lord!" cried Ulzor, rising up from his cushions, and reaching under his robes with his hand. "It is thou who blaspheme against Sauron, Lord of Middle Earth and King of Men!"
"Sit down and be silent!" replied Alatar forcefully, gesturing with his staff.
"Dost thou think thy shabby tricks are stronger than the powers of the Black Art, conjuror?" laughed Ulzor, and Alatar's eyes widened as he pulled a wickedly curved dagger from beneath his robes. "Die now!" he cried, lunging at the Wizard with a speed that belied his age.
Alatar could scarcely conceal his shock at Ulzor's resistance to his own Wizardly power. Had he been an ordinary Man himself, his throat would have been slit from ear to ear by Ulzor's curved blade. But his reflexes were faster than mortal eye could see; with lightning speed, he swung his staff upwards, knocking the dagger out of the man's hand. Ulzor gasped with pain as the Wizard then leapt out of his seat, dealing a reverse blow with the crystal staff that sent him crashing to the ground. Alatar planted the base of his staff on the back of the man's neck, and one of his black leather boots on the small of his back, while waiting for his defeated adversary to recover his wits.
"Peace!" Ulzor hissed at last, raising his hands off the dirt floor in supplication. "Inzullor, I deem you in our tongue of old, for you are both strange and powerful. If I have offended you, lord, yet I beg you to spare my life. Though I count myself a mage, it seems I have gravely underestimated your skill."
"And I yours," admitted Alatar, still regarding the man warily. "I never imagined that one of your kind could resist my powers, yet you brushed aside my commands as if they were nothing. Was this ability granted to you by your Black Art?"
"It might have been, lord," whispered Ulzor sullenly. "Those of us who have trained our wills to mastery of the minds of others are not so easily tamed ourselves."
"So it would seem," replied Alatar. "Perhaps I should learn more of your Black Art, so that it offers me no further surprises."
"Yet I must die before I teach you any of our Art, lord," said Ulzor, as the Wizard felt the scribe's body stiffen underneath his boot. "I am sworn to secrecy. The swift sting of death would be a small penalty indeed, compared to the torments that would await me at the hands of my brethren if I revealed even the least secret of our Art to the uninitiated. And it would only be a matter of time before they learned that I had betrayed my oath."
"Peace!" replied Alatar, lifting the grip of both staff and boot from Ulzor. "You may refer to me as Inzullor if you wish, by the by. Rise now and return to your seat, and we shall continue our discussion as one mage to another."
Slowly, Ulzor raised himself up, nodded, and returned to his seat behind the table. He felt both resentment at his defeat by this extraordinary stranger, and an odd delight at being addressed by him as if he were his equal. The Wizard resumed his own seat, once again laying his staff across his lap, and resumed a contemplative air, as if nothing had transpired between them.
"I gather you are not the leader of your Cult?" offered Inzullor – for so he now thought of himself.
"Our Cult, as you call it, has no leader," replied Ulzor. "Nor have we any master plan. We cannot afford for all our secrets and all our members to be disclosed to the Gondorians, simply because a single man in whom we entrusted supreme leadership had the ill fate of falling into their hands as a prisoner. We have only various degrees of initiates, who all carry out their own plans according to their own measure, in order to prosecute our struggle against the Gondorians. I am one of the supreme grade, but there are others."
"Well. In any case, I am indeed curious to learn more of your Black Art," replied Inzullor, narrowing his blue eyes. "You might say I am a scholar of such matters."
"I thought you were a turner of stones," replied Ulzor, though he swiftly bit his lip as the Wizard's black eyebrows lowered disapprovingly. "Ah, merely a jest, though perhaps in poor taste," he continued. "But I cannot initiate one who does not submit himself in body and soul to our master, Lord Sauron the Great."
"And I for my part shall do no such thing," replied Inzullor
"Then it seems we are at an impasse," concluded Ulzor, shrugging his shoulders.
Inzullor remained silent for a few moments. He could read the surface of this Man's mind easily enough, yet beneath were many dark chambers that were closed to his sight. Not without great difficulty would he be able to wrest from Ulzor the secrets of the Black Art against his will.
Then the Wizard smiled shrewdly. "Well, my dear scribe," he said, "so be it. You can offer me no further help, it seems. Save in one matter. Perhaps you can tell me where I might find the Courts of Justice used by the Gondor-men in this city?"
Ulzor shrank back, his suspicions flaring anew, but Inzullor raised his hands, palms outwards. "Peace, Ulzor! I did not mean to threaten you. Your secrets shall remain safe; not by my inclination, now that I learn more of your Cult and its deeds, but because I gave you my sworn oath by the Valar not to betray you to the executioner's axe. Such an oath I cannot undo, for I have sworn it by a Power greater than myself."
Ulzor glared sullenly at the Wizard, but nodded. "It seems beyond my power to hinder you, Inzullor, in any event," he hissed. "No man has ever knocked my knife from my hand before, nor thrown me to the ground, not since I became an initiate in our Art. So be it. Follow yonder alley back to the main road, and skirt the hither side of the Citadel to its southern wall. There are the pens where the prisoners are kept, and the square where they are judged in the open, and face punishment if deemed guilty. That square serves as the courts of this city. All of that quarter is heavily guarded by the Gondor-men, as you shall soon discover."
"No doubt," replied Inzullor, rising to his feet and bowing his head slightly. "The Gondor-men are vigilant enough in their own fashion. Well, good afternoon to you, Ulzor of Umbar. I fear you are too deeply mired in the snares of the Enemy for me to redeem you, and so you must remain bound to that fate which you have chosen. Yet I will offer you a parting word of advice; should you ever meet any of my kindred from the West, who bear robes and staves alike to mine, treat them with better manners than you have shown me. Particularly he who is robed in White; he would take most unkindly to any of your gibes or jests, and that would be the worse for you." And with that, Inzullor turned around and strode from the dusky room, the footfalls of his steed soon echoing down the alley outside as he journeyed toward the Citadel.
Ulzor brooded in silence for long hours afterwards, as the shadows of the afternoon lengthened into the sultry evening. "So," he whispered to himself at last, "the Valar once again make their gambit for dominion over this Middle Earth, and this Inzullor is but one of their heralds. No matter." He smiled grimly. "They have come too late."
Shrouded in the inky blackness of the Southern night, Ibal of Umbar rattled his chains again,and cursed his bitter fate. He and his companions, brave Haradrim whom he had picked for this mission himself, were shackled to a pillory amid the square south of the Citadel that served as both law-court and place of punishment for the city of Umbar. That very afternoon he had been tried and convicted of treason, and his companions of espionage. Now they all awaited an appointment with the executioner's axe at the light of dawn. Already the Moon, white and mocking, was beginning to sink into the West, and pale light glimmered on the horizon to the East – the last dawn that Ibal would ever seen.
Again and again, his mind raced over the plan that had gone so badly astray. It had seemed simple enough. He had selected from a tribe of Haradrim nomads who dwelt in the sands a week's march east of the city several young warriors whose command of the Common Tongue, though limited, should have been sufficient to pass them off as citizens of Umbar, albeit with their skin burnt darker than most. He would lead them through the gates, and then set them to work at their task; assessing the gates, towers, barracks, citadel and Gondorian soldiers of Umbar. They were to determine by their expert reckoning how many Haradrim warriors would be necessary to besiege the city, and the most promising points of attack for them to pursue so that they could annihilate its garrison before reinforcements arrived from Gondor. Chieftains of more than a dozen tribes of the Haradrim had pleged their warriors to such a venture; for even if they could not ultimately prevent the recapture of Umbar by the legions of Gondor, at least they could offer a gesture of solidarity with their ancient allies, the Men of Umbar, and inflict a humiliation on their ancient enemies, the hated Gondorians.
But alas, Ibal had underestimated the vigilance of the Gondorian garrison. Had the guards on the gate been fools to a man, like that wretched officer who had dispatched Ibal and his comrades to judgment, then it would have been easy enough to slip into the city undetected. But that accursed corporal had been an old hand in Umbar, and he was no fool. It was thanks to him, chiefly, that Ibal's scheme had failed. Ibal relected ruefully that for all his skill in the lesser aspects of the Black Art – poisoning and assassination, sedition and blackmail – and for all his diligent study of the esoteric principles that lay behind the Art, he had little power to make good his threats of doom against the corporal and his officer as long as he remained a prisoner.
Perhaps a higher-level initiate could have used subtle wiles to escape captivity, but it was beyond his own skill. Even if he could have freed himself from his shackles, as well as freeing his fellow captives, they would have great difficulty evading the numerous Gondorian watchmen who guarded the exits from the square. Nor could he hope for rescue by one of his fellow initiates in the path of the Black Serpent, for they all operated independently, pursuing their own schemes on their own initiative so that the capture of one would not lead to the ruin of all. Ibal was on his own.
Suddenly, to his surprise, he heard the scrape of booted feet over the hard stones of the courtyard. Looking up, he swore aloud, as he saw the armoured form of the very officer who not a day before had stood by the South gate of Umbar, and condemned Ibal and his men to captivity and judgment!
"Hast thou come to gloat at helpless prisoners, dunghill rat?" hissed Ibal at the officer, as the Haradrim captives stirred to wakefulness, and cursed the man in their own guttural tongue. "Coward!" cried Ibal. "Thou hast already led us to the scaffold. Remove my shackles and cast aside thy sword, and thou shalt see which one of us is the true man, and which the lowly cur!"
"Peace," whispered the man in a soft, mellow voice, as he made a curious gesture with his hands. "Keep your voices down, or you will alert the guards. I am here to talk with you, not to gloat at your plight."
Ibal stared in astonishment as, before his eyes, the image of the officer faded and took on another form entirely! Before him stood a tall, black-bearded Man, wearing robes and hat that seemed to be blue (thought it was hard to tell in the dim light), and bearing a staff of some sort in his right hand. The Haradrim ceased their cursing and fell silent, staring at the Man now with wonder and fear.
"What manner of jinn art thou?" whispered Ibal. "Or art thou, truly, an initiate of my Order come to our rescue? Nay, it is beyond hope!"
"I am neither," replied the figure, "though you should know that by the same token I am no servant of Gondor. As to your rescue; whether I aid in that has yet to be determined, and depends entirely on your answers to my questions. The Gondor-men have judged you according to their own laws, and it is not my place to interfere, unless in doing so I serve a higher purpose."
"And what purpose is that?" scowled Ibal, regarding this stranger now with wariness. Despite his captivity, he had the disturbing feeling that he had been lifted out of the frying pan, merely to be cast into the fire. "And why should I answer any of thy questions? Thou hast not even told me thine name, and it may be thou shalt leave me to my fate even should I parley with thee."
"You may call me Inzullor," replied the Man. "And I would advise you to address me with more respect, or I shall indeed leave you forthwith to endure your fate."
"Granted," replied Ibal sullenly. He was in no position to turn away even the chance of a rescue, whatever price was to be paid for it. "I shall not ask you how you evaded the guards," continued Ibal, "but I shall ask before you query me; what are your purposes, and what is your business with me?"
"My higher purposes need not be revealed to you at present," replied Inzullor evenly. "But my immediate purposes concern you and your fellow captives. I seek guides who will lead me as far into Harad as I wish. And I seek a guide of another sort, one who will teach me the secrets of the Black Art, whether they be found in his own memory or in hidden scrolls of lore, so that I may use those secrets as I please, without his imposing any initiation on me."
"Thou art mad!" spat Ibal. "The Haradrim suffer not strangers in their camps. Even Umbarians such as myself venture in their lands at our peril, and we are their kin and allies of old. It is not easy even for us to gain their trust." The Haradrim captives stirred, and stared venomously at Inzullor, but remained silent.
"Yet you have done so," replied Inzullor. "These men accept you as their leader."
"Aye, and what of it?" replied Ibal. "That does not mean you could succeed in such a venture. And as for the Black Art; I know nothing of it. Think you I would lie captive here if I did?"
"That means merely that you are not one of the highest initiates," replied Inzullor. Ibal frowned at the realization that this man knew more of the Black Serpents and their ways than an outlander should. "But you may still have things of value to teach me concerning this art," continued Inzullor, "and there may be formulas or incantations that you have learned, and which you do not truly understand, but whose deeper meaning shall be apparent to me once I have heard them."
"I say again, I know nothing of the Black Art," said Ibal stubbornly.
"And I say, do not seek to deceive me," replied Inzullor. "I witnessed your arrest at the gate this morning, and know that it is more than likely that a scheme such as you and these Haradrim have fashioned would have its origin in one of the devotees of the Black Serpent. And those who follow the Serpent's path act alone; thus you, as leader of this ragged little band, are surely a member of that cult yourself, and the failed plan to infiltrate this city was of your own devising."
Ibal frowned, and did not answer, though he wondered how the stranger could see anything so small in the darkness of the courtyard.
"So you no longer deny it," replied Inzullor. "Good."
"Even if I could lead you amongst the Haradrim, and convince them to give you safe conduct," said Ibal at length, "still I would not teach you anything of the Black Art. It is forbidden."
"I understand," replied Inzullor patiently. "You fear retribution from the other members of your cult, if they learn of your transgression. But you would do better to fear the headsman's axe; for that is what you will face on the morrow, if you do not agree to my terms. And besides, it may be that I have some lore of my own that I can teach you in exchange for your assistance - provided that I am satisfied you have turned your heart from the path of darkness, and onto a better road."
"Why should you with to learn the Black Art, outlander?" asked Ibal, changing the subject. "It is not to be trifled with. The more a Man studies it, the less of a Man he remains. It is not a study for the faint of heart."
"I am not lacking in courage," replied Inzullor. "And I will tell you frankly that I seek to learn the secrets of the Enemy's Art, so that I may turn it against him; or at the least, so that I may not be taken unawares by its wiles."
"The Enemy?" spat Ibal. "Thus have the Gondor-men ever referred to our Lord. You are cut from the same cloth as them, surely, even if you are not their servant. And whatever powers you may think you possess, to the Dark Lord you are no more than a gnat."
"We shall see," replied Inzullor dryly. "I think he would deem me a greater threat than that, should he become aware of my presence. Nor do I stand alone. But that is not your affair. I am not here to turn you from the worship of Sauron – for the moment, that is – but to enlist your aid for the purposes I have set forth. We can deal with your enlightenment later. Now, do you accept my terms, or not?"
"I accept that you are surely a madman," replied Ibal. "Even if you can free me and my comrades from captivity, and even if I lead you safely into the farthest reaches of Harad, neither of us shall live long if I reveal to you even the least secrets of the Black Art, while you blaspheme He who is its Author and Master."
"Master of that Art he may be," replied Inzullor, "but he is the author of nothing. The powers that he uses for his purposes are older and stronger than himself, and of their true nature I deem he knows less than he believes. He has not the power to create anything, merely to bend things to his will. And as for you," finished Inzullor curtly, "unless you think Sauron the Deceiver will save you from the scaffold tomorrow, you would do well to reconsider my proposal. This is the last chance I shall offer you for your redemption."
Ibal frowned, again, and for some moments he was silent, his agile mind racing over the risks and possibilities of the path that was laid out before him by the cryptic Inzullor. Then, at last, he nodded his head reluctantly. "Aye," he replied dourly, "so be it. I accept your offer – provided that you remain willing to teach me some of your own lore, if indeed you have a store of it as you claim."
"I do," replied Inzullor. "And I shall teach you some of it in return for yours, on the conditions that I have set out to you."
"Then it is agreed upon," concluded Ibal.
"Can this foreign dog be trusted?" spat one of the Haradrim, staring hard at Ibal. "He has slandered our Lord of old! And hark ye, we wish not for foreigners to trespass our lands."
"Hold your tongue!" shot back Ibal, and the man bowed his head, though his eyes still showed a fierce gleam. "We have no choice but to trust him, for the present."
"True enough," replied Inzullor briskly. "Now, all of you, be quiet, and don't argue or interrupt! I must tax my powers considerably to accomplish my purposes; your part is simply to do as I say, quickly and without comment! Do you understand?"
"Aye," replied Ibal, and with some reluctance the Haradrim echoed his agreement.
Inzullor began to chant softly, and as his voice grew louder the tip of his staff began to glow azure. The captives were silent now, their initial fear of this strange outlander once again stirring in their hearts.
Inzullor spoke a Word, and pointed at the captives with his staff. A blue spark shot from Ibal's manacles, and as they fell from his arms and legs with a dull clang, the spark leapt from captive to captive, until within a few moments all the captives were free!
They rose warily, stretching their aching limbs, striding away from the pillory so that they stood in a row in front of their rescuer, and awaiting Inzullor's next move. His staff was glowing even more brightly now, and Ibal began to fear it would soon attract the attention of the guards who stood outside the broad square, or those who stood watch from the battlements of the Citadel.
Inzullor then held his staff up to the sky, and spoke another Word. There was a sudden flash as of lighting which for an instant illuminated the entire square and much of the Citadel, though no sound accompanied it.
"Thou fool!" cried Ibal. "This light thou hast conjured up has betrayed us all to our doom! The Gondor-men will be on us in moments."
"Thou art the fool," snapped Inzullor. "Have you not eyes to see with?"
Ibal blinked, and suddenly realized that Inzullor had once again taken the form of a Gondorian officer. Yet to his even greater surprise, he and his Haradrim comrades appeared now in the guise of Gondorian soldiers, from their pale faces to the black tunics! The Haradrim muttered in fear at this sorcery, though even now they took their lead from Ibal.
"You see?" replied Inzullor, and Ibal nodded. "Quickly now, stand in line, and speak not! Do as I do, and we shall soon evade the watch. Form up in a column behind me."
They did so, just as a clattering of iron-shod boots echoed across the square from its eastern exit, which stood closest to the pillory. Within moments, a score of spear-bearing Gondorian soldiers were confronting Inzullor and the erstwhile captives.
"Ho, sir!" said a sergeant, hailing Inzullor, who he naturally took as an officer of the watch. "Did you see that strange light? We were glancing across the square, and it seemed to us that the captives were freed from their chains!"
"Yet you can see it is not so," replied Inzullor, with a perfect Gondorian accent. He gestured toward the pillory; and there, under the waning moonlight, the Gondor-men could clearly see the shadowy forms of the captives, still chained and awaiting their fate.
"Bless me, but our eyes have been playing tricks on us," said the sergeant, shaking his steel-helmed head. "Yet surely you saw that light at least, sir?"
"I did," replied Inzullor, "but it was no more than one of those strange flashes of light that oft illuminate the Southlands on a balmy night such as this, or so 'tis said. I am but
newly arrived at this post myself."
"Aye, that's right, sir," replied one of the Gondorian soliders, standing next to his sargeant. "Heat-lightening, it's called, though that's the largest such flash I've ever seen."
"Don't speak out of place!" barked the sergeant, and the man immediately fell silent. The sergeant then frowned, and turned again to the seeming officer before him.
"But might I asked what you're doing here, sir?" asked the sergeant. "This square is supposed to be closed-off during the night, and you're not part of the regular night watch."
"I am but newly attached to the night watch," replied Inzullor. "I decided to split up my unit of men, and I sent some under a corporal to patrol by the docks, while I take this squad on patrol across this square towards the East gate, then back to the Citadel. But is that your business, sergeant?"
"Well, not directly sir," said the sergeant bashfully. "It's my job to keep this part of this square under watch at night…"
"But not to question officers, I'll wager," replied Inzullor. "Now back to your post. We'll follow, and continue past you on our patrol route."
"Very good, sir," replied the sergeant, giving a brisk salute, right arm held up to his right breast, before turning his men about-face and marching them back to the eastern exit from the square. Inzullor and his men followed, and soon they had passed the eastern exit themselves.
"Quickly now, we must be through the gates before dawn!" whispered Inzullor, as they hurried down a broad thoroughfare that led to the Eastern gate. "And we'll need steeds as well. I had to turn my own loose by the fountain near the Citadel, for he has led a sheltered life, and isn't fit to survive a long journey over the desert."
At length, just before the cusp of dawn, they arrived at their destination. A high, clear horn sounded from the citadel, and by the action of a hidden mechanism the gate slowly opened with a groan, as two soldiers exited from the nearby barracks to assume their position on the morning watch.
"You there!" shouted Inzullor at the men. "My subordinates and I are on an important mission. Bring us horses, with saddles, provender-bags and water-flasks, at once!"
"Yes sir!" they replied, turning about face toward the stables. Within a few minutes they had returned, bearing the saddled horses as ordered – tough, wiry brutes used for expeditions along the frontiers of Umbar and onto the margins of the desert sands.
"Very good!" cried Inzullor, as he and his men hurriedly mounted their steeds. "Assume your positions at the gate, then! We don't want any unauthorized persons to sneak through."
"Right away, sir!" they cried, as Inzullor and his captives rode through the gates. The guards wondered at the strange smiles with which their mounted comrades favoured them before they spurred their steeds to a gallop and disappeared from sight.
They had journeyed perhaps a mile or so outside the city, though groves of date and pomegranate trees, when the Sun rose fully above the eastern horizon, and the sky quickly turned from pale to bright azure.
"The Sun rises swiftly in these Southern lands," noted Inzullor. Just then, a sudden clanging of horns and drums echoed from the distant Citadel, and was repeated from the nearer gate, which Inzullor could vaguely hear snap shut with a sharp clang. Just as suddenly, he, Ibal and the Haradrim ceased to look like Gondorian soldiers, and resumed their true forms; Inzullor garbed in blue, bearing his crystal staff, and the others bare apart from their loincloths, for their gaudy robes had been taken from them in captivity. The Haradrim muttered approvingly at the resumption of their true form.
"The illusion dissolved at dawn," said Inzullor in reply to Ibal's enquiring gaze. "We must ride swiftly now, for they know that you have escaped. The shadowy forms that appeared chained to the pillory in your stead will have dissolved now like mist."
"I owe you thanks," admitted Ibal grudgingly, and the Haradrim grunted their assent. "How far to you wish to ride?" continued Ibal.
"As far as I may," replied Inzullor. "I am already well South; so I may ride East now, for a good many leagues. A place amongst the Haradrim, yet far out in the wilds, will serve my purposes."
"First I will lead these lads to their homes, which are but a week's journey from here,"
replied Ibal, gesturing before him. They had mounted a crest in the road, and the groves that stretched east of the city were now rapidly giving way to a flat, sandy desert, that stretched as far into the East as the eye could see.
"Amongst their tribe we will renew our stores of food and water, as well as proper clothes for me," continued Ibal, "for my skin already burns under this hot Sun, and these saddlebags do not contain nearly enough provender to sustain us across the wastes of Harad. Next I shall take you to a dry well in the desert, in which is hidden one of our copies of the Scrolls of Sauron. With it you and I shall fulfil our bargain. Then we may journey eastward over the sands to the Ivory Hills, which lie many leagues East and some ways South of here. That land is beyond the desert, and full of food and water, but still touches on the lands of the Haradrim, and so is a fitting place to dwell if you wish to live in the wild for a time."
"That sounds a reasonable scheme to me," replied Inzullor. "I see you mean to hold to your word, then."
"We Umbar-men are not without our own sense of honour, whatever the Gondor-men may say of us," replied Ibal. "Though I'll admit honour may mean little to those of us who become proficient in the Art…but, in any case, my curiosity about your own lore-mastery, which appears mighty indeed, counts for as much as my word in my decision to guide you where you will."
"So be it," nodded Inzullor.
"And by the by, these steeds aren't fit for more than a short journey across the desert," continued Ibal. "When we arrive at the nomads' camp, we'll have to trade them for camels."
"What on earth is a camel?" frowned Inzullor. Unlike his fellow Wizard Aiwendil the Brown, he had not bothered to acquire more than a cursory acquaintance with the flora and fauna of Middle Earth.
"You do indeed have much to learn, for all your hidden lore," smiled Ibal grimly, as he stared at Inzullor with his hard grey eyes. "You'll soon be so familiar with those beasts that you'll wish you'd never heard the name."