Hello, this be Steelsheen, updating with the only thing she's written in practically forever. Many, many apologies to anyone who's been awaiting updates... I've been wrapped up in my original story and schoolwork and such. To tell you the truth, I've been really abandoning this. It frustrates me that all this is unpublishable because of its LOTR inspirations, and I am, after all, trying to get published... really, really sorry.
So I've decided to wrap it up after this chapter, and leave what happens afterward to your imaginations. (Anyone who'd like to piggyback on my version of Harad is welcome, btw.)
And thank you so much to all my wonderful, lovely reviewers, and to all the flamers out there who decided to skip over my story. :P
Chapter Fifteen: Finding Redemption
This time, Saali didn't have to bother to scream for help to find the Rangers.
She was walking along and slashing at the trees, step-step-slash, step-step-slash, when a strange bird call startled her. She jumped and whirled about, hand grasping reflexively at her sword-hilt. She knew she'd heard that somewhere before... she had wondered a bit about what it was then... where was it...
In the strange way that thoughts often do, the sound of the bird call melted in her mind into a vague, misty image of men running, screaming, arrows descending from the trees like lethal rain, and the sound of her own screams as she sprinted, gasping, for cover...
Saali's breath seemed to abandon her lungs and try to choke her, and she dropped to her knees and crawled frantically into the underbrush, covering her head with her arms.
The bird calls. They are the tarks' signals to each other... oh please, do not let them see me... Fate curse it, I am dead if they have seen me...
Saali clutched her knees to her chest as panicked thoughts rattled her mind. No. Calm down. I am a spy, I am a professional, I can handle this... breathe...
The same call sounded again, twice this time, shrill and morbid, sending Saali's heart into overdrive again. It was a sort of trill, she realized, the kind that could be made by cupping a hand over one's mouth and rolling one's tongue.
And suddenly the young widow was slapped over the head with an idea that was either brave or utterly stupid.
Peering through the leaves above her head, she watched the trees, and listened hard, and waited with bated breath.
After just a few moments, the call sounded, and Saali jerked her head in the direction of the trill. Sharp dark eyes darted left, right - there! A flash of pale skin between the leaves in the tree just a few feet behind her, a little rustle in the branches and just a glimpse of a green-fletched arrow-tip.
Gritting her teeth, not daring to breathe, Saali crawled toward the foot of the tree, slinking on all fours like a lynx and keeping well within the cover of the brush. At least, she hoped she was covered. Oh, Fate curse it, do not look down now...
Another trill sounded as she slunk - the other Ranger was somewhere behind and to the left of her. She hoped he was somewhat gullible. Her plan hinged on him almost entirely. That is, whatever ragtag scraps of a plan she had.
Crrrrooooo! The one behind her trilled again. That was her cue. Saali cleared her throat (Fate damn it, her throat was dry, and it hurt), cupped her hand around her mouth and let out the best imitation of a Ranger's trill that she possibly could.
Crrrrooooo! The sound seemed to echo far more than it should. She wasn't bad at it, she realized.
Then she flinched in fear, cowered and waited.
The Ranger in the tree above her was clearly confused. He gave three small chirping sounds, which were new to Saali. The trills, she was fairly sure, just meant "I am here".
The other Ranger responded with two chirps and a long caw, sort of like a very human-sounding crow. Saali could barely breathe. Were they to realize her identity, they would have no problem shooting her from their comfortable seats in the trees. But her goal was to make the other Ranger think she was the one in the tree above her, and to communicate something that might possibly cause them to go away, and maybe, hopefully, even to lead her back to their camp. She forced herself to suck in a breath. The last thing she needed right now was to faint.
There was a frantic-confused conversation between the two in trills and chirps and every other conceivable bird-noise a human could make. Saali put in her own every few seconds, not really knowing what she was doing, blindly conversing in a tongue foreign to her with reckless abandon. She would later remember this as one of the more exhilarating moments in her spying career.
Evidently, she confused them a good amount, because the one in her tree began to climb down. Saali stifled a gasp and scrambled away from the foot of the tree, taking shelter behind another, watching as the man's soft leather boots hit the ground with a thump. He looked around with the unearthly gray eyes of the tarks, frowning.
Saali crouched and waited, holding her breath again. The man's head turned ever so slightly in her direction -
"Oy! Damrod!" The other Ranger came to her rescue. He swung nimbly off the his branch and dropped to the ground as he hissed these words. "What do you think you're playing at, telling me to shoot in a southeasterly direction?"
So that was what Saali had said. She smiled a bit, and her nerves eased just the smallest amount.
"I didn't," the man called Damrod said simply. Her leaned toward his partner and spoke in hushed tones, but Saali with her sharp ears still was able to hear. "There is something else out here. Something smart, from the looks of it, smarter than an orc. Imitating our signals, curse it." He glanced about uneasily.
"Do you think there might be, er... more than one?" the other wondered, fidgeting nervously.
"Oh, do not start with that." Damrod looked wearily irritated. Saali wondered if most great sorcerers behaved like they did, and why they didn't just seek her out with their spells. Perhaps they do not have any seeking spells...
Damrod continued briskly. "You go back to camp; tell Captain Faramir there are spies lurking about. I shall call Howelin to me and we shall search out this thing, whatever it is."
"'Tis probably one of those Southrons, curse them," the other commented bitterly. Saali wondered what a Southron was.
"Just go. Now!" Damrod urged impatiently, then stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Probably calling Howelin, whatever that was, Saali realized, which meant she had better get out of there, and fast.
The Ranger who was not Damrod gave a little head-bow and began to stride off in what Saali assumed was the direction of the camp. Now! Now! Now! The spy hoisted herself onto her elbows and began to crawl frantically after him, being careful not to let herself land on any twigs or leaves that might catch Damrod's ear if snapped.
She was acutely aware of every leaf in every tree, every crunch of every step Not-Damrod took as he retreated before her, and the fact that dirt was being ground deep into the elbows of her outer undershirt. Her black eye had begun to throb painfully.
Footsteps to her right - Saali froze and rolled into a bush, cursing the rustle of the leaves as the twigs cut into her face. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. Another Ranger, running, looking quite harassed, passed right by her, bent on getting where he was going. Howelin.
The spy waited until he was totally out of sight, then shoved the bush out of her face and rolled onto her stomach. Not-Damrod was only barely visible, a moving green-brown shadow amongst the trees. Fate curse it, he CANNOT get away now!
It took all of Saali's will bent on silence to stay so as she crawled out of the bush, stood, and glanced around. Damrod and Howelin were nowhere in sight. Good. The young widow began to trot after Not-Damrod, stepping lightly among the roots and branches with tensed muscles. All around her, Saali thought she heard footsteps, following, and what could be lurking in those trees...
Slashslashhack. Leaving her mark on the trees did wonders for her nerves. She knew the mothers of the world would have a few words to say if they saw her running with her unsheathed dagger.
And with that thought, Saali loosened up entirely, nerves becoming replaced again by steely determination. She was measured and deliberate in her strides, she left a slash on every other tree, she kept Not-Damrod's back within her sight at all times, although it was harder now that he was running, too. Coward. Probably thinking he has got the entire Haradic army on his tail... Well, he will soon. Saali felt a superior smile stretch over her features.
And then, suddenly, Not-Damrod disappeared behind a large boulder, and Saali followed him, and when she poked her head around the side of the boulder the Ranger's camp lay sprawled out in front of her. It was disorganized and shaky-looking as usual, but now that Saali had seen the tarks' prowess in the field, she knew better than to judge them on the conditions of their camp.
Well. That was it. Her job was done. Saali swelled with pride and felt a grin come over her face. Let them say whatever they would about her; she knew they were wrong. She was good. And this time, she would not lose her trail.
This time, the battle was swift. The Rangers were taken by surprise, and they retreated quickly, with almost no bloodshed, preferring to leave battle for another time rather than lose the amount of men they would have lost.
The cheers of the Haradrim were fierce and triumphant, and the birds fluttered in small storms out of the trees like they shared in the excitement, when really they were just startled by the noise.
Saali was floating on cushions of pride and victory, all doubts about her alliances and griefs of the past assuaged, for the moment at least. She had looked for purpose, and she had found it, and she had succeeded at it. Her life had affected the world.
Meaning is bliss.
As the sun set, the soldiers lit a celebratory fire, and there was singing and dancing, and no small amount of drinking. Saali, for the most part, refrained from the drinking, but she watched the dancers and clapped along with the singers, acting in stead of the drums that were not to be missed in any festival of Harad.
A loud cough behind her alerted her to someone's presence, and she turned to see Panim and Brown-eyes standing awkwardly behind her. "Yes?" she demanded, instantly suspicious.
"We just wished to make our gratitude... that is, we feel indebted..." Panim stumbled over his big words.
"You did a good job," said Brown-eyes, and his voice startled her. "Thank you."
Saali hadn't been expecting any congratulations; she had been just as happy being pleased with herself on her own, but now that they came, she felt even higher than before, if that was even possible. "You - you are welcome," she replied, still slightly in shock.
"I am Nikat," Brown-eyes told her, and when she didn't answer in her satisfied daze, the two turned and left. Saali watched their retreating backs with wonder and sat down hard on a rock.
"Drunk yet, princess?" Tai flopped down next to her, canteen of wine in hand.
Saali laughed. For once, she didn't care if he called her "princess". "Not yet. And I do not intend to drink, either, although you seem to have drunk rather a lot," she chided him.
"Ah, my spy princess. Must always stay sober and sharp so she can be the hero," Tai slurred happily.
"I am not the hero." Saali feigned modesty quite agreeably.
"To anyone who matters, you are," her friend gave her back, and as he did so, he leaned forward, and lost his balance in a way so that his mouth sort of managed to land on her cheek in a way that would have resembled a kiss, had Saali not known better...
"Tai..." The spy gave him a long look.
"I know. Should not have done that," Tai grinned sheepishly.
"No. You should not." Saali's thoughts refused to stay in one place, and she was getting rather dizzy and frightened, in what might have been a good way.
"But then again, I should not have talked to you, and you should not have come along with the army in the first place, and..." Tai shrugged. "There are many things that people should not do that turn out to be good in the end."
"I suppose so." Saali's brow furrowed, and she watched the firelight dance on her friend's face. Could it work?
"And," Tai added, "I needed a bit of drink to get this out of me, but I think I might be finding myself liking you a bit more than I would ordinarily like a fellow soldier, princess."
Saali's world froze for a moment.
Then she dropped her eyes to the ground. "You cannot," she said dully. " We cannot. It is against everything..."
"I did not say we would have to tell anyone, did I?" Tai grinned that mischievous grin.
And Saali grinned back, as she went the highest she'd ever been, right up to the clouds and the blazing sun that beat down on the streets of Harad, many miles south back home. How long had she loved that mischievous grin? "No, my friend, you did not."
And at that moment, Reni sat down beside them and nodded, and if he'd heard anything or noticed their glowing faces, he said nothing.
And the three friends, outcasts, misfits of the regiment, and utterly comfortable in each other's presence, sat together (two of them singing, one silent) until the flames of the fire were put out.