There was the moment when our attackers realized they’d bitten off more than they could chew. There were only three of them, after all. Clearly they hadn’t expected Shadryn to be capable of dealing nearly as much pain as the archers, even if some of it wasn’t entirely intentional. When they withdrew, I was not satisfied, and motioned to pursue.
At least with the highwaymen it had been plain why, here in a desolate land, we’d met them. Those desperate men squatted in the depths of Eryn Vorn, making a meager living on hunting while staying far beyond the reach of any stewards, lords, thanes, shirriffs, or city watches. Most likely many of them would, if they were seen in Bree or Gondor, be thrown summarily into a cell for past crimes, but no such possibility existed in this remote wilderness. The occasional passerby proved a chance for a few coins, or whatever other spoils they might take by force.
But these three men clearly did not dwell nearby. They’d set an ambush for us, though they’d underestimated us. They had traveled along this abandoned way, presumably specifically so they might set up that ambush. Normally, if you ask the question “who might want to set up an ambush for me?” there is only one answer, or none. I reflected wryly on the fact that, so had our adventures unfolded these past few months, there were far too many answers to consider.
Of course, there might be Corsairs, men of Umbar so bent on their plan of conquest they might follow us all this way to capture Lady Shadryn. This was a puzzlement for me, and had been since first I’d received the orders. I understood, of course, why it was necessary to guide the lady safely from Gondor to a remote place, and why guards would be needed to face the dangers of the road. But I’d always found it strained credulity that my orders bade me to protect her just as closely in Bree as I had in Gondor against the Corsairs. If they simply wanted a noble-born hostage, they would hardly send men on a dangerous journey of many months just to find this particular lady, rather than seek another one closer to home, I reasoned; and yet the orders were clear.
Then there might be friends of the highwaymen, seeking revenge. Some of them had no doubt perished of their wounds, others were injured, and all must have felt shamed by their defeat. The same might be said of the Hebog-lûth, though that answer would only revive the question of why they had attacked us in the first place.
I could not set aside lightly that another answer might lurk in the mystery of the gemstone that Shadryn had, it seemed clear, taken from that spider-haunted ruin; who else might know of it, and know what power it contained? I had read of ancient artifacts cunningly fashioned by the Eldar, or precious stones unearthed by the dwarves in their halls, stones which shined with a power of their own; and in all such tales, the ancient talisman, whatever power it contained, also seemed to entwine fate around it, bringing ruin and despair to those caught up in its tale. One such artifact might draw to it evil creatures, another might seem to weave oddities of happenstance; but they all drew rivals, eager to seize the artifact, at the point of a sword, or worse.
Capturing one of these men might afford an opportunity to answer this question, I hoped. One had an arrow deep in his chest, the tip lodged through a rib such that it could not be easily removed; blood trickled from the side of his mouth. The second man, as he tried to run, caught another arrow low in his back, and when he fell I knew he would not rise again. The third hurled himself atop a horse and was in the distance before we could follow; there would be no catching him. I turned to the man with the arrow in his chest. “You might yet live if this injury is treated, and I possess the means to do so. If you tell me all of what brought you to ambush us, you will walk again beneath the sun. If you will not, the best you can hope for is a mercifully swift end.”
The man looked up at me and laughed. There was something familiar in his voice, which I could not place right away. “Is this, then, the honor of a Captain of Gondor, to torture and slay a helpless man? I would expect nothing better from robbers and thieves.”
I bristled; there was little that punctured my composure, save slander against Gondor. I might have done something rash, had Shadryn not placed a hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to myself. “You shall have mercy that you have not earned, through your brutal attack on an innocent woman. All that remains is for you to choose which mercy you will receive: the mercy of the balm, or of the blade.”
“We have much experience with the mercy of Gondor,” the man said, his voice dripping with bitterness. “But you threaten in vain, for there is naught I could tell you that you do not already know. The rightful king of Gondor was thrown down by insurrection and treason, at the Crossings of Erui. The time is nigh that the Heirs of Castamir will reclaim their kingdom from the vile worms, like you, who squat in its halls and soil its proud history. What mercy you give me matters not. There are movements that elude your eye, which ready to make right history. A desperate flight north to the ruins of Arnor will do naught to preserve the ruins of Gondor.”
His words were plain enough; he was either one of the Corsair scouts, or an ally or informant for them, though his tenacity, and the fierceness of his defiance, suggested the former. While I listened, I did not dwell on his view of history, predicated on the idea that Castamir had been a rightful king and not a usurper, and further, that some of his heirs survived the campaign of Telumehtar Umbardacil, to pass that dubious claim to the throne down to this man’s kinsmen. Instead, I focused on his voice, until I recalled where I had heard it before. At the edge of Dunland, at a camp made hastily and wearily, I had heard, or thought I heard, that same voice speaking to some of the Hebog-lûth. Had those wild-men been in the service of these Corsairs? Or had they, unable to slay us for reasons of their own, offered us up to the Corsairs so they could have their vengeance through another hand? Or was some third hand behind both?
Whatever it was, I would not learn it from this man. He’d been right that he could offer me no intelligence save what I already possessed. But I felt some need to refute his claims, even if only for the benefit of my men, lest they fall to wondering about the veracity of these claims. “The White Tree will blossom for the true king. If your so-called Heir of Castamir proves true, then let him bring forth his seedling. But if you’ve nothing to bring but hollow threats, then may they keep you warm in the storms that lash your coasts, for you shall have not the fires of Gondor to warm you.”
I gestured to Radolf, who moved to hold the man down in case he had the intent of some reckless action, then prepared a poultice and bandage. While I had learned a modicum of the healing arts simply by seeing my mother at work, and Shadryn also knew enough to be of help, his injury was grave; when I removed the arrow, the flow of blood that started was great, more than I could staunch.
He grinned wolfishly at the sight of the blood rising from his chest, and coughed. “Such is the mercy I expect from a squatter in the White City,” he growled with his last breaths. When he slumped down, I was still trying to stop the flow of blood, and Shadryn had to tug my hands away, insisting that I had done all I could. Even if the man had died thinking me devoid of honor, I still saw to it he had a proper grave before we continued on our way.