King Elessar sat cross-legged on the ground. At his side, a grown man not half his size was smoking a pipe. Some of the king’s men stood about, bemused but not altogether surprised at the scene.
Before them, an elderly man in a pale blue kaftan sat on a three-legged stool beside an open fire. There was a pot hanging over the fire supported by a frame with a hook for the pot’s handle. Occasionally as they talked, the old man would fill small cups from the pot for the three of them to drink. The halfling had a habit of surreptitiously pouring the hot liquid away and asking instead for tea. The old man pretended, politely, not to hear, while the king jabbed a reproaching finger into his royal messenger’s arm.
“Can you tell us more of the stories of your people’s dealings with the magic men?” The king begged.
The old man took another sip from his cup, before filling the night air with his tale and the pungent aroma of strong coffee. He closed his eyes to see the action play in his mind.
“Our Easterling warrior chief roared his derision. He leapt onto the alter-stone and swung his mighty two-handed sword over his head, his body’s sinuous movement belying his powerful frame. The rite demanded a sacrifice and by all the strength in him he resolved that blood would be spilled this night.
The one you name Pallando stood impassively as the chieftain towered over the child. His staff was held aloft but he made no movement. The other, who you call Alatar, was never still and at times did not appear to be there at all.
The crowd about them stood like statues. The chieftain’s personal guard, those that had not fled in terror, were each to a man restrained within the clutches of a host of living skeletons that had risen from the earth within the ceremonial circle of stones. Only the chief himself had evaded capture and now threatened to end the lives of both shamen and complete the ceremony.
Not before then a fortnight earlier, a couple of travel weary men in robes the colour of the morning sky had driven their wagon into the camp to exchange weapons, that they said they had found at a battle site, for food and lodgings and some new shoes, for their own were very worn. The local tribeswomen are to this day renown for their skill at shoemaking. They came amongst our people and healed the many that had been wounded in recent fighting that they found there. Accordingly, they were treated well and were granted high status by the chief. They enjoyed that the best that the plains had to offer.”
The halfling started to mutter something about getting something pleasant to drink, but ended his interruption suddenly with a tiny yelp.
Elessar spoke, seeking to clarify what he understood from the story so far. The switching of the timeline had thrown him momentarily and he struggled to fit the narrative with rumours and legends he had picked up in the past from his earlier travels in the region.
“If I am correct, war was coming. The orcs along this side of the Anduin had ventured ever further Northward. The Lidless-Eye of Barad-dûr had already forged alliances with many tribes, promising them fertile lands on the far shore of the Great River. The Bedouin however had no desire to leave their nomadic homelands and did not accept any bribes. After a brief exchange with ambassadors from Mordor, an army of orcs was dispatched to end the tribe’s existence. Fortunately, your people had some powerful allies and the attack was repelled.”
The old man picked up the thread and continued his telling.
“So it was that the Blue Shamen gained their high status with our ancestors.
But the chief had received mortal wounds in the battle that were beyond the knowledge of the magic men, or so they said. They counseled him, alone, for the longest day before he died and none knew of the promises that were made. The parting was sorrowful. The drums sounded in the camp and echoed, it seemed, from every horizon. Even from the South, where we had heard that truce had been made with your red-eyed devil.
There was a son, a powerful and heroic warrior, and he became chief. He promised that when the orc army came marching on our land again, there would be a bloody sword waiting for them. With the weapons the shamen had brought, there would be a forest of them. After a night of mourning, the drums beat once more at the coming of the new dawn with renewed vigour and passion. Feasting and dancing filled the next day and on into the night until a procession of torches led all to an open, sunken plateau where a lost circle of stones stood around an altar. The shamen were not aware of the place and knew nothing of the rituals that took place there.
A child had been lain upon the altar. Beside the child’s feet was an ornate dagger with a curved blade. Grooves etched into the altar-stone led to each of the corners where small vessels with conical mouths were placed expectantly. The tribes-people were enjoying the festivities and none questioned the traditional sacred offering. It had served as part of our culture for generations. The crowd grew solemn but were prepared to witness.”
“Alatar and Pallando were not.” interrupted Elessar, again taking over the narrative. “The first did not need to hear the air tremble at the sound of Valaroma to feel Orome’s anger, for he felt it himself. Likewise, Pallando did not need to feel his soul burn with Mandos’s hatred for the senseless ceremony as he could see a part of the child’s future for himself and knew that it must not be ended in that place.” The king looked about him to see his knights nodding in silent prayer. It gladdened his heart to know that the same belief that had served the faithful of Westernesse found a home still in the hearts of his own men.
“‘Enough!’, cried the spirit-master,” The king’s loud re-enactment startled Pippin into dropping his pouch of Shire-leaf, “and he raised his yew staff and summoned the dead to come to his aid.” The old man looked into Ellasar’s eyes and resumed.
“The other shaman touched the ground with his staff and the crowd turned, at once, to stone in fear of him. Realising that the rite had been interrupted, the warriors drew their weapons, but found that they were surrounded by skeletons whose arms clutched them and held them from making an attack.
Anger seized the young chieftain. He rushed to the altar to grab at the knife, but as he watched his fevered hand reach toward it, a shadow passed in front of his eyes and when he could again see where it had lain, it had disappeared. His grasp found nothing. He turned to stare at his shamen. They were his no more. Your Alatar had the blade in his hand as his robe settled about him once more.
“Betrayal” he spat. He leapt up onto the altar in a single bound and, reaching behind his back with both hands, he drew his huge sword from its scabbard. He swung it over his head and brought it crashing down onto the dais in a fury of sparks.
The sacrifice already lay in your Pallando’s left arm, playing with the collar of his cloak, oblivious.
Suddenly, the young warrior chief was frozen in horror. His father, with his shroud hanging off him like rags, stepped down into the circle and approached the altar. He came and stood between them and raised his eyes to meet his son’s.
`If you will not listen to wisdom, you will heed these words at my last. We are none of us God’s’, he said. `You dishonour me if you take any life that is not our enemies. This is a new age for us all and it should start with the respect for the life we make. Let the child live.’
With that, the body of the old chief fell to the ground. The skeletons turned to dust and were swept away by the wind. The sound of falling swords filled the air. The new chief took me from the Shaman and gave me his fathers name and the crowd came to life, the men weeping and the women cheering.”
The old man poured them all another cup of coffee, and they each drank.
“Respect us and our ways, and we will continue to serve you as we did before the Black Gates opened, though you knew us not.”
“I drink in honour the courage of your people. We are well met at last,” said the King. Glad, he was, but no closer to finding the answers he sought.