A WICKED DECEIT
Written by Angmar
At dusk on April 8, a hooded and cloaked beggar leaning heavily upon a gnarled walking stick hobbled up to the gate house at Lord Ashtum's keep. Holding a tin cup in the opposite hand, he hoarsely rasped, "Will not the gracious lord help a poor man?"
"Begone with ye!" the tall guard warned from his post in front of the guard station. "There are no beggars at the lord's table."
"Please, sir," the beggar cried as he fell to his knees, imploring, holding his cup forward.
"Be away with ye!" shouted the guard in reply.
"Kind sir, have mercy!"
Another guard, positioned at the other side of the gate, brandished his spear threateningly and moved towards the beggar. "You heard what he said, scum! Be away with you before you find the end of this spear knocking some sense into your thick pate!"
The beggar cringed back, his walking stick falling from one hand as the cup fell from the other and clinked against the cobblestones. The guard now held the spear in both hands, threatening to bring it down upon the beggar's head. The beggar looked up at him and in a thin, raspy voice, he said, "I have something here." He reached inside the sleeve of his tattered tunic.
"A knife, I wager! Be careful how you move!" the guard hissed and the other guard rushed to his side, spear pointed at the beggar.
"No, most kind sir, not a knife," he said, quickly drawing a slip of parchment from his sleeve. "'Tis a letter meant for your lord."
"Speak quickly, knave!" the taller guard said. "Or there will be a spear thrust through your rotten snags of teeth!"
With a trembling hand, the beggar held up a rolled scroll of parchment tied with a string. "Read the name, kind sir," he hissed between broken teeth.
Keeping his eyes on the beggar, the tall guard lowered his spear and with his left hand, reached out for the paper, skimming the finely formed letters on the outside of the scroll. He looked from the paper and down into the eyes of the beggar and then tucked the parchment beneath his cloak. Opening his coin pouch, he withdrew a coin and placed it in the beggar's outreached hand. "Go now! I give you a half hour to make your escape!" He spat a long stream of spit in the direction of the beggar.
Rising, the beggar laughed and kicked the fallen tin cup towards the guard, then bowed a low sweeping formal bow and then taking three steps backwards, he turned and walked away.
Lord Ashtum, wounded in the skirmish with the outlaws, was recovering in his hall and lay in his bed, his back propped up against pillows. Though he railed against the injustice of it all, he knew it was very unlikely he would ever see his family again if he did not comply with the outlaws' wishes. He discussed the bandits' demands with his captain of guards and his chamberlain, and they poured over the note just delivered a few moments before by a guard:
If you desire to see your family alive again, you will send one man with ten thousand gold coins loaded upon a packhorse at midnight tomorrow night to the crossroads near the village of Alfirin. On the right of the road just past the crossroads, there is a path through the woods. The man will travel until he finds a small stream. On the left, there is a large tree with a rock to the left of it. The man is to tie the horse there and leave without raising an alarm. Then if after counting the money and establishing that it is all there, the family will be returned to you in the same clearing at the same time the next night. Do not attempt any trickery, for you will be watched at all times and at the slightest hint of treachery all those involved, including your family, will be killed.
We will take from the invading Easterling and Haradrim dogs threefold what they took from us.
A Gentleman of the Highway
April 9, midnight - early morning April 10
Consequently the day after the beggar arrived, Lord Ashtum sent one of the men in his employ at midnight to the clearing with a packhorse carrying the specified amount of money and left it tied to the tree as commanded.
Mindon and Balrig, who had been hiding in the trees, went to the horse and after opening the pack, could see the gold reflecting in the light of the faint moon. Satisfied, they led the horse away on a path on the other side of the clearing where they reached their tied horses and leading the packhorse, they rode away towards their main camp where their leader, Captain Algund, awaited them.
When hours later Mindon and Balrig arrived in the camp, Captain Algund inspected the treasures by the light of a torch. "By the weight of it," he said, "the Haradric lord had not attempted to cheat us too badly." The Captain sat down on a stool and divided up the booty. After their shares were distributed, his men cheered and they were all glad that this piece of work would soon be done. "Tomorrow night," Algund said afterwards as the men gathered around the campfire, "Lord Ashtum's brat will be returned to him... he deserves him, but I am keeping the mother and daughter for myself! Return the pup. We will all be glad to be rid of him."
Ceolwulf felt sick at his stomach at this treachery. "Captain," he said as he watched The Captain from his place near the fire, "you cannot do this! You promised to return all of them, once the ransom was paid, and now you break your word! No good ever came of such deceit! Return the women along with the boy!"
"Nay," emphasized The Captain, "Debanni is a fair and comely wench and I have developed a fondness for the women of the South. Her mother would bring a modest amount at any slave market," he said, "or would you rather I gave them both to my men?" He and his men all laughed. "The Haradrim had no hesitation in taking and raping our women, and now it is only fitting that we take and ravish theirs!"
Vardamir was speechless, looking across the flames of the campfire at The Captain, and he cursed the day that he had ever let Ceolwulf talk him into taking up the life of a highwayman. The only possible good that had come out of the whole ill-planned venture was that young Candon, the grandson of Berenon the Cobbler of Alfirin, would be leaving for freedom that night. Vardamir rode away from the camp leading an extra horse by rope with halter. He dreaded to think of the sad final farewells between the grandson and his grandfather before the lad left him forever.
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