The Edge of Doubt

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Mathdor was still inwardly fuming by the time he left Fey and ‘Miss Merry’ in the kitchens and returned to his room. He kicked the door shut with more force than was strictly necessary, then winced as he turned too quickly and his back gave a painful throb. Merry probably hadn’t realised how hard she had shoved him–though he, and the stone floor, had a very good idea.

Mathdor sighed and pressed his head into his hands, staring unseeingly into the shadows of his fingers. Just thinking about it now made his heart start to pound again. Maybe he had been stupid to think getting in the way of the arrow was even remotely a good idea, but what had he been supposed to do? Stand by and watch?

He had seen the fear in Merry’s eyes when she had agreed to help them. He had heard the quaver of hesitation in her voice, and watched her body curl in on itself in doubt. Black Rose she might be, but he’d always been able to read people pretty well, he thought, and he didn’t believe this was a trick. He’d promised her that as long as she kept her word, they would keep theirs. He’d vouched for all of them, because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to gain her trust at all.

Don’t worry, he’d said. Oendir’s a good man, and a fair one. He’ll hear you out.

But Oendir had turned his words into a lie.

And there was something about that, something deeper than just anger, that actually hurt quite a lot. Mathdor had always taken issue with authority, with folk who thought they could tell him what to do or what he could be. He’d stood up against that, and he would never forget that it had brought him a world of trouble. But with the Company, with Oendir, he had found someplace and someone he trusted enough to submit to that willingly, and, at least until now, he’d thought it would work out. He was beginning to think that maybe it had only been a matter of time before he was proven wrong.

One hand dropped, and he fumbled for the porcelain shard on its string just beneath the lacing of his shirt. He ran one thumb over its smooth surface, shut his eyes, and breathed quietly.

His faith was wavering again. Maybe it had never been as strong as he’d thought.

A Spark of Interest

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“There’s a new message over at Ravenhold.”

Mathdor’s tone was light and offhand as he shrugged off his cloak and looped it over the peg by the door. He raised his eyes in time to see Gwen’s brows go up.

“Oh?” she prompted, turning back to the cupboard, where she was stowing several dishes back in their proper places. “Who from?”

“No idea.” Mathdor lifted one shoulder. He poked his head around the doorway to his daughter’s room, but was unsurprised when he found it empty. When he turned back, he caught Gwen looking at him again, and a frown crossed his face. “What?”

Details, Mathdor,” she said reprovingly, with an exasperated breath. “You obviously found something to interest you, which is more luck than anyone’s had the past few months.”

Mathdor stiffened a little. Whether she had meant to imply an accusation or not, he had felt it, and it stung more than he expected. He pressed his lips together but did not answer right away. Maybe it was guilt, what he was feeling. It probably was, at that–because she was right, as she always was.

Something about life in Bree-town had paled and stagnated for Mathdor. He couldn’t pinpoint the start of it, for he had barely recognised that it was happening until complacency had settled in so comfortably that he couldn’t extract himself again. To make matters worse, he hadn’t tried to fight the feeling. He had kept telling himself, over and over, that he owed it to Gwen, and to their daughter, to stay put for once. He was a father; he was supposed to be responsible now. But he was finding that he had to tell himself more and more often, and he had spent the past few months trying to ignore the things that tempted him otherwise–the cold, tantalising wind that swept down from the Brandy Hills, and the curve of the East Road before it disappeared just out of sight into the dry grass of the Wild.

“Just the usual,” he said now, running his hand absently along the doorframe and barely meeting Gwen’s eyes. “Something about doom and destruction and our little group being the only hope.” He gave a wry smile and shook his head. “Anyway. I’ll just, erm–”  He looked quickly around for something to do, but Gwen’s impeccable housekeeping left very little. His words floundered. “I’ll–”

“Go.”

Gwen’s voice was firm, and Mathdor looked up again with a feeling of quiet astonishment. “I–what?”

“I said go.” She was almost smiling at him as she came over and laid her hand against his cheek. “It’s about time you stopped being martyr to whatever ridiculous notions your mind has convinced you of.”

“I’m not–” Mathdor spluttered softly, staring at her, “I never meant–” He didn’t know quite what he was trying to say, and it irked him. “I can’t leave you two again, Gwen, you know–”

“Yes, I do know,” she interrupted, cutting his words short with surprising ease and dropping her hand again. “I know you’re going to drive yourself quietly mad if you bury your head here for much longer.” Her voice grew firmer. “Go.”

Mathdor tried one more time. “But–”

This time, it was with a quick kiss that she cut him off. “No arguments. ”

She picked up her sewing from the table nearby and vanished into the next room before Mathdor could react. He was left standing there, blinking and feeling, if he had to be honest with himself, rather foolish.

The Gift

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“It is a fine piece of work,” the Dwarf grunted as he stuck one broad hand into the saddlebag of his stocky but weary-looking horse.

Smiling knowingly, Mathdor nodded. “Aye, I expected as much. He’s got an eye and a touch that I never will.”

He leaned back on his heels, staring idly around the courtyard, where a few travellers were conversing softly, or else leading their horses over to the stables set against one of the high walls. Here and there, grey- and brown-clad figures moved, with the grace and subtle pride of the Rangers. Ost Guruth was set well back from the Road, but it still managed to attract a motley assortment of folk, and luckily the Edain had opened their arms enough that it could be a refuge for those in the midst of the Wild.

“Almost good enough to be Mountain-make,” continued the Dwarf, turning back to Mathdor with a cloth-wrapped object between his hands. Nodding, his tangle of beard bobbing with him, he held it out. “Might even fool some folk.”

“My my, high praise from a smith himself, Master Grimthane.” Mathdor flicked him a quick grin as he delicately accepted the parcel. It was lighter than he’d expected, flat on top and bottom but rounded all along its thick edge, rather like a cake pan. He stared at it for a few moments, then lifted his gaze again and smiled. “It was good of you to bring it all the way here.”

“On my road anyway,” Grimthane replied gruffly, waving a hand before setting it back on his belt. He nodded toward the wrapped object again, adding, “Come on now, lad—not going to take a peek?”

Mathdor laughed and shook his head. “Not now, I’m afraid. I’d rather not risk it ‘til I’m safely back in Bree-town.”

Grimthane eyed him with what seemed to be a slightly appraising look, then abruptly bobbed his head again. “As you will, then, lad, as you will, and a safe journey to you.”

“And you, Master Grimthane,” Mathdor returned, making a short, easy bow at the waist. “May your hammer be always firm and may your beard never wither.” He marred the speech slightly by grinning again as he straightened, and as he turned away, he thought he heard the Dwarf muttering n faint surprise, “Knows all the polite things, doesn’t he…? Hmm, well…”

Chuckling quietly to himself, Mathdor tucked the parcel carefully under his arm and went to retrieve his horse for the journey back to Bree.

Time of Waiting

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Da—

Maybe I should’ve written earlier, but it’s not like you would have expected otherwise, from me. Keeping in touch isn’t one of my strong points.

Things worked out alright. Not as well as I’d wished, but a lot better than I’d hoped, and that’s good enough for me. We’re in Bree again—me, Gwen, Lúta—and we’ve got a place here, finally. I’m hoping we can make it into as good a home as we had in the city.

I’m writing for a reason, of course. Long story short, Coroline (you remember her? I told you about her), well, she’s just had her first child.  It’s been difficult for her, in more ways than one, and she’s been through a lot. So, what I mean to ask is, if you can, I’d like you to make something for the girl. One of those toys you were so good at once, you know? Lúta will get the music box when she’s old enough, but I want Coroline’s child to have something at the start. I hope it’s not too much to ask.

Gwen sends her love, as well.

Mathdor

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Atan—

We didn’t part well last time. It still doesn’t sit right with me. But just know that I don’t hold a grudge, and you can find me if you need to.

Mathdor

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To Sir Oendir Arrowheart, of Ravenhold:

I have come to the conclusion that I must write, if only for the keeping of my own conscience. I do not know if you know me, or even of me, but there are those among your Company who do, and who, I pray, may vouch for my goodwill.

I am called Nazhir and I am of the Far South. I have stayed at Ravenhold this past week, thanks to the generosity of the one known as Morramarth, and I feel that you also should know that your hospitality is one that I am deeply grateful for, though you may not yet be aware that is it given.

It is perhaps best that we speak in person, for I confess I have things to ask of you. I will continue to remain at Ravenhold until that time; the lady Harawyn assures me that I will not be travelling for some days yet.

In gratitude,

Nazhir

Black and Red

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He could feel the blood trickling down his back, wending its way like snakes between his skin and the now ripped and stained fabric of the plain travelling garments he had switched to only hours earlier. The sensation was strange—so warm and caressing that almost it held at bay the pain in the wounds from which it stemmed. The cuts were shallower than they looked, he knew, but the loss of blood was still beginning to make his head buzz strangely. He fought it off; he must continue.

There was a wound on his head, too—an accident, he was sure, a miscalculated blow that he had not anticipated. When he reached up to brush a hand over the place, his fingertips came into contact with more wetness, thickening in his dark and partially-matted hair.

Alone amongst the trees, he allowed himself a soft muttered oath, unsurprised to find that a long period of foreign speech had not weakened his own. He had, after all, long since mastered that art.

Without thinking, he rolled back one shoulder, and immediately regretted it; bruised as it was, he was met with another ache, though not as sharp as it should have been. He let out a soft hiss. The man had been eager enough in the beginning, but his zeal seemed to have paled as the blood grew more visible. Weak, yes, very weak in the end.

Not far now.

He came to the gate with his lips set in an expression that was part grimace, and part smile.

Fear would come soon enough.

Sketches by Ria

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So, as many of you may have noticed (or perhaps not!), I’ve been slowly developing a character by the name of Honouria (Ria for short). She’s nineteen, Bree-land born and bred, and comes from a family of quite well-to-do merchants that have now settled onto a farm north of the town. Recently, she’s been apprenticed to Dercenious the vinter.

One of Ria’s more notable quirks is that she carries with her a leatherbound journal, in which she writes snippets of stories and characters, and also does numerous sketches of people and places that have caught her fancy. And so, I’ll be putting up a number of these as she goes on. 

BREE-FOUNTAIN

The Fashioning of A Second Chance

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He had always been good with his hands, though he had never been a woodworker, a metalsmith, a jeweller, nor an artisan of any kind. But he liked fiddling with things even if he never did anything with them later. Busy hands, his father had said, many years ago, and he certainly hadn’t lost the habits since then.

Mathdor stayed up late that night, crouched by the campfire long after most of his companions had succumbed to sleep. Once in a while he would begin humming very softly under his breath, and in his hands, over and over and over again, he turned the thin porcelain shard that had been Faluin’s entirely unexpected gift.

It kept gleaming at him with every new angle from which it caught the firelight. The glittering red and gold seemed even more alive here than they had when the shard had first been dropped into his palm, and more than that, the pattern was incredibly hypnotic–Mathdor could hardly tear his eyes from the fragment long enough to slide another piece of wood onto the fire.

It was a gift  he still wasn’t certain that he deserved; all along he had been the cynic, the sceptic, the voice of doubt and the asker of questions who nevertheless held his own answers far too close. The puzzle piece that almost didn’t fit.

And yet here he was with a piece of the mask of the Bard in his hands. Even more surprising, the bit of him that always wanted to ask “Why me?” was little more than a distracting buzz at the back of his mind.

Smiling slightly to himself, he settled more comfortably against one of the store packs and reached for his pouch, bringing out a roll of thin, strong twine. Then, placing the mask shard gently down beside him, he set his fingers into the steady, minute rhythm of braiding.

For a while, he merely enjoyed losing himself in twisting the twine around itself, flicking the braid in a quick arc to the side whenever it grew too long for him to handle properly. By the time he cut and knotted the end, he had more than he needed.

He set the twine aside after that; rose, and made his way down to the lakeshore, where dark wavelets pushed softly against the pebbles in the still night air. He spent some time there, pacing with his eyes downcast, breathing in the near-silence. Eventually, he began sorting through the rocks at his feet, and straightened again with one in his hand–one with a thin, sharp edge, and large enough to brace against his palm.

The mask shard was waiting for him when he returned to the campsite–he could see it glinting even as he rounded the fire and dropped, cross-legged, to the ground again.

There was little anxiety in his thoughts as he picked up the shard again, gave it an appraising look, and then set his lake-stone up against one of the porcelain’s still-sharp edges. Somehow, he didn’t think the Bard would mind his softening the edges of the mask fragment–and then the very fact that he was considering the Bard’s opinion made Mathdor smile ruefully at himself.

It was slow and painstaking work, but he honestly didn’t mind; each movement of the stone against the porcelain was tiny and precise–not dulling the edges, but merely taking the bite from them. When he was finished ,the shard gleamed as brightly as ever in front of his eyes.

He took the braided twine and wrapped it around the two sharpest points of the fragment, looping from one to the other without breaking. The rest of the braid he tied in a larger loop, and then with a soft breath he slipped it over his head.

The shard came to rest against his tunic, but he reached up and tucked it beneath, so that he could feel its smoothness against the skin of his chest.

He’s always believed in second chances, except for himself. Maybe it was time to change that.

Below is my interpretation of the pendant that Mathdor made, and look, you can see some of my scribbles along with it!

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Acceptance

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[This is a more or less direct transcription from Mathdor’s dream session; minor things have been edited for readability, and to compensate for Mathdor’s own view of the situation. Thanks and kudos to Amimain for providing the opportunity for this!]

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For a few seconds, Mathdor was convinced that he was awakening prematurely; he could feel what he thought was his conscious mind resurfacing, and he groaned inwardly, for it was still dark, and it could not possibly be time to rise yet.

But even as he fought the sensation, he became aware of another: heat. Heat, and then light, and he realised with a rather unpleasant shock that he was, in fact, rapidly becoming present in the most vivid dream he had ever encountered—because this place, this was definitely not where he had gone to sleep.

He was standing, alone, in a sheltered hollow encircled by pillars of stone. A large pyre blazed brightly at the center of the shrine, but the blooming light it cast died at the feet of the horse-headed pillars. Beyond the circle, he could see nothing but a vast expanse of darkness, and would have bet a fair amount of coin that there was nothing but darkness out there. He swayed a bit as the lighting played with his vision, blinking and shaking his head, trying to peer past the pyre into the shadowy void, but got absolutely nowhere with that.

As he stood there, completely still, trying to collect himself, he slowly became aware of a figure materialising on the other side of the flames. It was tall, larger than life, dressed in a colourful motley stitched with gold and a long, merry jester’s hat perched on its head. A white porcelain mask decorated with curls of glittering red and gold obscured the face from view, but the eyes were still there, eyes deep and knowing and impossibly familiar.

Mathdor drew in his breath and turned quickly, his instincts kicking in even here, warning him of the presence of others appearing around him. He shielded his face from the light of the pyre with one raised hand and took a few steps back to better his view. His eyes squinted and narrowed.

To his left he saw a woman, and though small and stoop-backed, she, too, was somehow regal. Her clothing and decoration were strange to Mathdor—northern, tribal—and two thick white braids hung over her shoulders down to her hips. To his right was a figure more familiar to him, for she had the unmistakable bearing of a Rohirric shieldmaiden. Her light hair was swept up in a severe bun, and her face was angled and stern. She was wearing gleaming platemail that looked to be of both silver and gold.

Mathdor let his eyes dart from one figure to the other, taking in the stance and appearance of each despite his increasing confusion. Any number of comments filtered through his mind, but he clamped his mouth shut and resisted the immediate urge to be flippant.

And just when he thought things had gotten strange enough, he felt the presence of another someone behind him; he whirled on his heel again, feeling suddenly very cornered in this small space. He was met by a ruddy, very Dalish face—a man with short, choppy brown hair and dressed in sleeveless studded leather. He’d lost a hand somewhere during his lifetime, for on his left stump of a wrist was a simple steel hook. He had a well-worn sort of sense about him, and despite an objectively likeable face, Mathdor had no inclination to start a friendly chat.

Silence fell, for what felt like a small eternity, and then the robed man (The Bard, a strange voice in Mathdor’s head told him, as though it was something he’d known and long forgotten, he must be The Bard) began to speak.

“Mathdor Ward,” he said, and his voice was smooth and warm. “The four of us are known to you, though you choose to believe otherwise. It is time that you hear us.”

Mathdor gave The Bard a rather flat look. “Aye? I’ve a good memory for faces, you know. Don’t recall yours.”

“You are young,” said the old woman, her voice thin and rasping. Mathdor noticed that her eyes were milky white—a seer? “You are blind yet to the consequences of your inaction, though you do not always have to be.”

Mathdor opened his mouth, but was cut off again by the shieldmaiden.

“You endanger the lives of your comrades and family with your refusal to believe the whole truth.”

Her voice was harsh, but not as harsh as her words, and Mathdor felt his features tighten in response. He kept silent.

“Look, kid,” came the Dale-man’s voice from directly behind him, and he turned again wordlessly, feeling a vague note of indignation at being called kid, “what my dramatic contemporaries are trying to say is that your skepticism won’t get you anywhere. There are things out there—old things, powerful things—that you think aren’t real. Point is, all of them, and all of us—we’ll exist whether you believe it or not, and if you choose not, well…”

“…the rest of your journey shall be uphill,” finished the old woman, “and through thorns.”

Dramatic contemporaries, all right, thought Mathdor irritably. His eyes narrowed again as he focussed on the seer, and then he said quietly, “If you exist whether I like it or not, why should my choice make any difference?”

Almost as soon as he said it, though, he rather wished he hadn’t; aloud, the words sounded weak and childlike—apathy, the coward’s defence.

“Because sight is a choice,” the woman answered.

“And you have chosen to see naught but what is behind you,” added the shieldmaiden.

Mathdor shifted his weight ever so slightly. He was still facing the Dale-man, who seemed to pose the best possibility for non-cryptic conversation—which, given the current circumstances, wasn’t much of a comfort. “Aye, maybe,” he said slowly, “but at least I can start to leave things behind now.”

That much, at least, he was convinced of—that he had reached and rounded a turning point when he had turned his back on Esgaroth again, and since then he’d somehow felt freer because of it.

The other Dale-man reached up and scratched at his stubbly chin with the side of his hook. “Let me break it down for you: we can help you, but only if you let us.” He grinned, and gave a deferential nod. “You’re a big tough guy like me. I get that. Maybe you don’t need our help, or maybe you don’t want to ask for it. But going through life angry hurts everyone you love. I learned that the hard way.”

Mathdor looked hard at him for a long moment, and then let out a sudden humourless laugh. “Big tough guy?” he repeated, the corner of his lip twitching. “You must be looking for Gaelyn. I’m the one who left—the one who ran away.”

And though he’d said it to himself many times before, it suddenly touched him again, here, with more rawness than it ever had, and he clenched his hands tightly as though that might possibly keep it from showing.

The one who ran away.

The one who plotted the death of stranger.

The one who stayed silent.

The one who deserted all, and himself last.

His gaze dropped. For a moment, none of the figures spoke, but there was a strange sense of knowing, of understanding, that drifted from them.

Pieces of it all began to flash through his mind again, all in the space of a single moment and yet infinitely longer than that in his head; he thought of Dagrún, and the warehouse by the docks; of Rainer’s grinning face and Eitri’s laughing one, both gone, both silenced for their knowledge; of Gwen, of the daughter lost and the one in her place; of Audan and Coroline, and the consequences already emerging; and then, strangely, of his father, and that tale, that family history he’d never cared about until very, very recently…

He looked slowly up again, saying nothing.

“We are here for you always,” said The Bard at last. “Your acceptance of us will set you on the path towards wholeness.”

Mathdor bit his lip, tasting blood, and looked around at them, then at The Bard last of all. “Who are you?”

We are Fionwe,” they said, all in unison, and their voices braided together were deep and hollow, like wind over the mountains.

A rush of sensation—the feeling of sunlight, the intangible smells of sand and basil—suddenly enveloped him, and he shut his eyes for a moment, his breath becoming sharp and unsteady. After a few seconds he swallowed, hard, and forced himself to look again.

The four figures began to speak in turn, each gaze settling on him.

“Not every secret can be spoken.”

“Nor every effort done.”

“Not every villain can be broken.”

“Nor every battle won.”

By the time they had finished, Mathdor had recovered enough to mutter, “Oh, that was clever.” But he managed no more, for three of the four abruptly faded into darkness, taking the pillars with them. He turned slowly on the spot, feeling an odd mixture of relief, disappointment, and pure irritation. Now he was left only with The Bard, and the flaming pyre between them.

The Bard’s face was as invisible as ever behind his mask, but he sounded like he might be smiling as he said, “Mathdor Ward, your lesson is acceptance. Only when you embrace it will your path be clear.”

Mathdor opened his mouth to respond, but, as with the others, the figure melted away before he could speak, along with the pyre. Now, there was nothing but warm, seemingly endless darkness around him; he extended one hand hesitantly into the blackness, but encountered nothing, which wasn’t so much frightening as it was nerve-wracking.

But while he could see nothing except darkness, he suddenly had the feeling that he was not alone in this void—there was someone else here, reaching for him, holding him, its invisible arms latching around his neck as a child might have done. He felt his breath catch in his throat.

Maeva…?

He knew after a moment that it wasn’t her—it was far older than her, in its own way—but how he wished it could be, the tiny girl with the auburn hair. His eyes grew startled in the blackness, and he stilled, one hand still partially extended, filled with the sudden fear that to move would be to shatter this moment forever.

How long he—they—remained like this, he didn’t know, nor did he really care. It was as though the presence with him had only to touch him to dissolve all his usual barriers, leaving him exposed to its complete familiarity. And he found, too, that for once, he could neither struggle nor run, and at any rate felt no inclination to do so.

After an unknown length of time, he felt a pair of invisible lips brush against the top of his head, and then a voice, stirring something deep inside of him:

“If you spend your whole life glancing over your shoulder, all you will ever do is stumble.”

The words still echoed in his ears when he woke suddenly. His eyes were very wide, his breath trembling, and the scar that all of Thragan’s healing couldn’t prevent was stinging on his arm.

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[For anyone interested, the scar on Math’s arm is from an occurrence many months back, details of which can be found here.]

A Familiar Feeling

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She walked away from the house with the heavy, resigned feeling that always came with knowing that someone close had made a mistake, and that no matter what she said, she would still be forced to remain on the sidelines. Oh, she would be there for the girl, of course, but despite all her words of encouragement, she knew that wasn’t worth very much, in the end. Coroline would find that out eventually.

Her breath came in a soft sigh as she turned onto the road, helped along by an impatient Lúta tugging at her fingers. This was one of the few things that could be neither hidden nor brushed aside, and it was not pleasant to imagine the sort of reactions that Coroline would have to face as the months progressed.

But then, she thought, that was the price the girl would have to pay, and it was foolish to hide behind a pretence of ignorance.

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The common room of the Inn had slowly begun to empty, but against the far wall, one man lingered still, as he had been for the past few hours. He had stood for a while, then dropped into a chair when that got a little tiring, and now sat with his legs stretched out in front of him and a half-drunk mug of ale close at hand.

His eyes drifted lazily, taking in the features of those he could see in the dim lighting. Most were unfamiliar to him, now, but he found that he didn’t really mind. This place was always in a state of flux, and there was something oddly comforting in knowing he could be just as easily surprised as bored each time he came in here. And after all, the faces might be different, but the atmosphere was the same – firelight, laughter, the low murmur of voices that turned to a droning buzz in his ears.

He reached for his mug, a grin twitching at his lips for no reason whatsoever.

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Not long after dark he returned to his rooms, folding his cloak with habitual precision over the back of the chair by the door. He itched to remove the fine mail mesh under his tunic, as well, but resisted the impulse; he would be leaving again soon enough. He rolled one shoulder irritably, the thought crossing his mind that it has been some time since he had felt so uncomfortable in the ringed metal.

He lit one of the candles on the table by the window, then pulled the well-folded parchment from the pouch at his belt and spread it on the wooden surface beneath his hands. His eyes narrowed.

He had recognised the banner the instant that Megarra had showed him the drawing, but he had feigned uncertainty, trying to buy himself some time for consideration. He would have preferred to investigate the island on his own, but it made little difference; the flag of Umbar still flew, and what rankled more than anything was that he did not know why.

Umbar had no reason to be here. Umbar should have been utterly preoccupied with its feud with Gondor, and it simply did not make sense that it should send a contingent to a tiny land so incredibly far beyond its own borders, just for the sake of capturing one man.

With a soft hiss, he folded the parchment again and replaced it at his belt. He would learn soon enough what this meant.