"I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange." - The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 2
The sun set as the three travelers prepared their dinner over the inconspicuously small burning campfire. Akala carefully spitted the rabbit she had snared, while her brother Jirra collected firewood. Aragorn set the full waterskins down, just returned from the spring. Shaking his head, he pulled his cloak tighter. He was not quite used to the cool early nights in Far Harad; it had been warm enough as they made their way south through the jungle, but now, after days of traveling, they had emerged over the mountains into a dry scrubby plateau. For the middle of Lótessë, it felt like autumn to him.
It was a good enough place to camp: a swale of bare rock at the edge of a long table-land, overlooking the valley below. For though they had met few people on their trip, the vantage point gave them a clear view over any other people or game coming their way. A short wizened tree stood next to their campsite, casting long-fingered shadows along the swale. Its roots held tightly to the small bit of sand at its base, standing solid against the winds that swept over the exposed table-land. With a glance to the setting sun, Aragorn gathered a few stones from around the campsite and began to build a small cairn off to one side of the campfire.
Akala shook her head, the beads in her dark braids tinkling. "Every night you do that. What is your purpose in it?"
He smiled. "I do it so that I always know which way north is. Even if the morning is cloudy or we are covered in fog, we can tell our directions. Sometimes I point an arrow, or a set some sticks in a line, but when I am in unfamiliar territory, it helps me."
Akala breathed out through her nose, half snort, half chuckle. "Why don't you just remember which way you came, or which way you were when you lay down to sleep?"
"When I was but a child, with little experience out of doors, I made camp one night in the woods with my foster brothers. We woke up to a dense fog. I had no idea where we were, and could not remember which way we came. I nearly panicked. My foster brothers love to tease, and never let me hear the end of it. Even today, the habit makes me feel better. If we were in my home country, I would orient myself and my cairn to the North Star, but I have not seen it since we entered the jungle. It sank lower on the horizon each night, and then disappeared."
Akala nodded. "Brothers can be a trial, that is true. They never let you forget mistakes." She smirked at Jirra, and turned back to the rabbit roasting on the fire.
Jirra looked up from neatly stacking his armload of branches and returned her a bearded smile. "Yes, little sister, I can tell our traveling companion any number of stories you'd wish to forget."
After dinner was finished, they began laying out their bedrolls. "I'll take first watch," Akala volunteered, taking up her spear and sitting herself down on the sun-warmed granite. The sky was clear, the night would get colder still. Aragorn, thankful for the thickness of his elven blanket, was just settling in when suddenly she shouted.
"Look!" She pointed as a shooting star streaked slowly across the sky, crackling as it went. "Make a wish!"
Aragorn stared at her. "Pardon me?"
Jirra, who had already laid down, leaned up on one elbow, and looked at Aragorn with surprise and interest: "Didn't your mother teach you to wish on a shooting star?" Aragorn found it hard to imagine the large and usually reticent man as a child playing at his mother's feet.
"No. Perhaps it was improper for my foster family to make something as ephemeral as a wish. I was taught that when Varda placed the stars in the sky, it was a work of art for the ages. My mother believed the stars could be portents, however. She looked to them for tidings of good or ill." Aragorn thought wistfully of what he might wish for from the Valar. An end to the shadow in the East? The hand of his love, with whom he had once sat watching the stars on a summer evening? "My tutors taught me the names of all the constellations, though. They also studied the movements of the stars in the heavens. For example," he paused, and pointed to the west. "Over there is Menelmacar, the Hunter. What do you call it?"
"The same, in our language." Jirra moved his hand over a bit from the Hunter. "And do you call those stars there the Hound?"
Aragorn agreed. He craned his head backward, looking up at the sky. "How about there?" he pointed. "Do you see a horse?"
"No, we call that the Lion," laughed Akala. She tipped her head to the side. "Do you even have lions in your home country?"
"Not in the north country. Once I saw one in a cage, in the market of Umbar," he said.
"How about that one to the left?" She traced across the top of the sky to the east, gesturing with her spear. "Do you call that the Giraffe?"
Squinting at the constellation, "what's a giraffe?" Aragorn asked, seeing only a rough rectangle with a line of stars at the end.
Jirra tried to mime something with his hands, by the firelight. "It's… it's... like a horse, but with spots, and a very long neck. It eats leaves from the tree tops. If we go to the west, we can see one. They travel in great herds on the savannah."
Aragorn's jaw dropped. "Those are real? I saw a picture of one in my foster father's library, but it had no name with it. I thought they were an illuminator's flight of fancy! This I would very much like to see, my friend." He thought of the travels he wished to take in peacetime, and looked up again at the stars Jirra had just named. "No, we call that the Tent. We connect another line, there, to make the roof."
The three traded names of constellations in the same way for some time. Aragorn tried to point out Valacirca to them, the end of the Sickle just barely sticking above the northern horizon. It was hard; the stars were in odd places and almost upside down. He craned his head and tried to picture it.
"I don't see a sickle," Akala said, her voice bemused. "In any event, you worried that you could not find your way if you could not see your North Star. Here, we find our way with the Dagger and the Brothers." She pointed to four stars midway overhead. Aragorn could see a short curved dagger just like Jirra carried at his waist. "Those four stars make the Dagger. Next to them, do you see the two small bright stars? Those are the Brothers. Across from the Brothers is the Maiden, by herself." She pointed to still another bright star, separate from the others. "The Brothers fought over the love of the Maiden, and in their jealousy, one stabbed the other with the Dagger and killed him. The remaining Brother was so torn with remorse that he took his own life. The Maiden wasted away in grief, and the gods put them all in the sky as a tribute."
"A tribute to what?" interrupted Aragorn.
She shrugged. "I'm not sure- perhaps a tribute to lost love? Another version of the story says she wasn't interested in either one and ran off with a third man and was mauled by a leopard shortly thereafter. Perhaps it's a warning to make sure things are worth fighting over," she grinned, and then pointed to his cairn: "or perhaps to pay attention to your surroundings."
Aragorn chuckled and looked back overhead. Akala was now waving her arms but at what? He couldn't quite follow the end of her spear as her shoulder shook with laughter. "In any case, if you draw a long line from the Brothers across to the Maiden, and then a short line from the Dagger to the middle of the long first line, do you see the dark spot between the stars? Imagine at the meeting of the lines in the dark spot, that your draw yet a third line from there down to the horizon, you'll find South."
Aragorn rubbed his forehead; her instructions made no sense to him. "Leopards, and jealousy, grief, and anger… it is all rather complicated," replied Aragorn, his eyebrows raised, "just like finding one's way from drawing lines across the sky, but it is no stranger than some of the stories we tell of the Valar. I am afraid your lines make no help in my head. Why didn't your gods simply make a star for the south, like Varda did for the north?"
Jirra yawned. "We could talk for hours about the creation of the stars by our gods, and whether they are the same as your Valar, but perhaps another night. I think we should turn in. We have a long way to travel tomorrow to the next water source. Akala, you take the first watch, and wake me for the second watch. Aragorn, you can take the last." They all wished each other a good night, and soon everything was quiet.
Aragorn laid down his head, but then almost too soon he felt Jirra's hand upon his shoulder, shaking him awake for his watch. Jirra rolled himself in his blankets and went to sleep. Aragorn looked up at the dark sky, with the bright stars spread across it. All the stories of Varda placing the stars in the heavens ran through his mind. He thought of Soronúmë the Eagle set loose to fly in the western skies, and Wilwarin placed to light the way of the Elves. And did Menelmacar ever hunt a lion or a giraffe? What of the stars here in Far Harad? Did Varda place them too? Were these other stars under the care of the siblings' deities? Were they all created by the One?
As he pondered the nature of the Valar, and tried to imagine a giraffe and other beasts he had yet to see, a star streaked across the sky. Determined not to waste this chance, he made a wish. It was heartfelt, and one he had made under many stars in many other kingdoms: to see his Evenstar again.
A few minutes later a soft wind arose and another star fell, and then another. Soon as he kept the watch, star after star fell from the sky. It was like a fountain. He had seen shooting stars before, of course, but never so many in Lótessë, so late in the turning of the year. Even Mithrandir's fireworks could not approach the beauty of this sight. He chuckled. Whatever was Varda up to, in the heavens? Chasing Tillion for some imagined slight? Stirring nets of stars to catch Lorien's slumbering dreams? He added another stick to the fire, and gazed back up at the sky. He wanted to believe that the fountain of falling stars was a blessing from Varda on his wish. His mother would say it was a good omen. And yet, he remembered Elrond's advice on wishes: wishes need plans to be fulfilled. Aragorn knew that he had much to learn in his journeys before he could earn his crown and his Evenstar. It amused him that he had to travel this far to find his portent. In Harad, the stars might be strange, but they were no less magical.
A/N: This story was a submission for the May 2017 Teitho Contest, "Habits." I wish to extend deep thanks to my Betas, Sian22 and D., for their suggestions. Any mistakes are my own.