Epilogue: The Steward's Letter
Shushuah heard the sound of the door closing and the quiet greeting of the servants as she hurried down the hallway. Coming into the entry of her home she approached the man standing there and knelt before him, catching his hands in hers and pressing her cheek to them. "Greetings, my husband."
The tall man before her smiled and pulled her to her feet, wrapping his arms around her to press her against his travel-stained clothes as he hugged her tightly. "Greetings, my wife." He bent down and pressed his cheek to hers. "I have missed you."
"And I have missed you, Salim."
Before he could say any more he was besieged by the children, all five crowding around him as they welcomed him home, from the grave eldest daughter to the wiry 8-year old boy. "Father!" They pushed and shouted, each vying for his attention. He smiled and spoke to each one before taking Shushuah's hand and leading her into the courtyard. "I want to speak to your mother alone," he said, his tone leaving no room for argument. With a chorus of disappointed groans they left their parents and dispersed as quickly as they had gathered.
Shushuah let herself be led to the carved stone bench beneath a grape arbor and allowed her husband lower her onto the seat and then join her. He looked at her a moment and she could see he was unsure how to begin, so she asked brightly, "Tell me of your journey."
"'Shuah, it is a beautiful city," he said quietly. "It takes many days to get there, but you cannot believe the country you travel through. Huge forests of trees and flowers, rivers wider than the main street of Dalania. Mountains that reach so high, you cannot imagine. And the city –" his dark eyes widened as he spoke, looking off in the distance, seeing again where he had been and she had not. "The city rises up from the mountain, as though it were carved from the living stone itself, which some say it is. It is white, whiter than sand, whiter than ivory, glaring white, blinding white." He stopped and gave her an embarrassed smile. "I cannot describe it."
"You are doing wonderfully, thus far," she said softly.
"The people are tall and fair, with hair and eyes of all colors, although many have dark hair and light eyes. They treated us courteously." A tight smile hovered on Salim's lips. "With suspicion, but with courtesy also. Some of our people responded well, some did not. We were uneasy, until we met the King." The smile instantly widened. "He is a good man, 'Shuah, I could tell. He speaks with quiet authority, and his face is open and honest. I was not afraid to make a treaty with that kind of man. His word is his promise, and he will deal fairly with us." He paused and a frown creased his face. "I must speak to our king before some of the others do, and make him see this is a wise choice."
He said nothing more for a moment and she took his hand. "I am proud of you, Salim. You are the ambassador the king respects. He will listen to your words." She reached out and smoothed back his black hair, laying her hand against his cheek. Never had she regretted her marriage to Salim Zal-hanid, not when her father had belittled him, nor when the warriors who commanded Haradrim society had dismissed him. She had loved him for over twenty years now and never questioned her decision to marry him.
Shushuah thought back to her father's horror when she had told him of her choice, one not from the eligible men of proper station that he had listed.
"'Shuah, I forbid it, he is a weakling, a talker, a promise-maker." Al-jur Dhan's black eyes had drilled into her. She had refused to change her decision, threatened to leave and live in the streets if he forced her into an arranged marriage to one of the older warriors he favored for her.
In the end, she had prevailed, simply because she willed it. Salim and she had been married without her father's blessing, without his presence at the wedding, and he had never seen his grandchildren before dying what he would have surely considered a valiant death in the War Against Gondor seven years ago. Shushuah had wept tears at the news, not of grief over his death, but over all they might have shared the many years he had cut himself off from her.
Now she looked up at her husband, his black hair sandy and tousled from his long trip, his face dusty, and loved him all the more for his supposed weakness. For his ability to see more than one side of an idea, for his belief that those whom many of the people of Harad would call enemies might share a love of family and peace. For his persistence in working out a treaty with Gondor, to spare Harad any more death and destruction.
She waited and when he did not speak any more she searched his face. "You have not said if you saw him," she said, her voice very quiet.
Salim looked down at his hands. "I told the King of my wish, and showed him the token you gave me. He sent me to the man they call the Steward. He is the King's first and foremost assistant." Seeing her inquiring look her shook his head. "It was the brother, he had blue eyes, 'Shuah." Her face fell and he cleared his throat. "He – he sent you a letter." Reaching into the small leather case he carried his most important papers in, he pulled out a folded piece of parchment and handed it to her.
Shushuah held the parchment before her apprehensively. Letters did not convey good news in her experience. Straightening her shoulders, she opened it. It was written in Westron and she could only recognize a few of the letters, so she handed it back to Salim. "Please, read it."
Her husband took the letter and smoothed it out on his knees.
To the Lady Shushuah
Wife of Salim Zal-hanid
Ambassador of Dalania
Kingdom of Near Harad
It is with pleasure that I send you my greetings and long-overdue thanks. Your acts of kindness towards my brother Boromir and myself have never been forgotten. Because of you, my brother was returned to health and his family.
It is my sad duty to inform you that he was killed several years ago and although he died an honorable death, it was not until that day that I truly realized the great service you had done for me long ago in the desert. Only then did I understand the grief you had spared me. I have often thought of your words concerning your own grief upon the loss of your beloved brothers and now recognize your wisdom and sacrifice concerning mine.
I return the token that you sent, please keep it and always remember my brother and that you have my gratitude.
Steward of Gondor
Shushuah sat silently, her hands clasped in her lap. Salim smoothed the letter once again, then reached down and rifled through his case. Pulling out a small leather scrap, he handed it to her.
She looked down at the worn strip, the small tree of Gondor nearly faded away, and remembered the day her father had received it, shaking with anger, from the search party that carried it home. He had cursed, cursed Gondor and cursed Jekarr, who had been killed and left behind with the others. He had cursed his own foolishness at leaving, and hers for forcing him to leave.
"You bear the burden for this!" he had shouted at her. "If you had not acted like a lovesick girl I would not have had to take you away, they would not have killed them all." He had thrown the piece of leather in the corner and stalked out and she had retrieved it afterward and kept it all these years.
She had believed him, then. Believed that it was her fault that the soldiers left behind had died, believed that but for her they would have returned home to their families, even as she secretly rejoiced to know the man of Gondor had rescued his brother. She had buried the guilt and the pleasure, and not spoken of it again.
She had never told anyone what had happened those few days in the desert, or that evening when she had been found by the younger brother and had encouraged him to save his brother's life. Never spoken of the way she had come to care about the green-eyed man or her hope all these years that he lived and remembered her. Until Salim had been appointed Second Ambassador to Gondor.
When he had told her of his appointment she could see his pride and his apprehension. Many in Harad had no wish to make peace with Gondor regardless of the fact that each battle with the mighty armies of the northern kingdom ended badly for them. She had encouraged Salim to accept the appointment, to go to Gondor and broker a peace for their people, and then one night she had pulled the leather scrap from her jewelry case and told him of her trip across the desert nearly twenty-five years ago.
"When you are in their city, find him for me," she had asked. "Find him and tell him I remember him."
Salim had watched her as she told her tale with black eyes full of compassion and tenderness. "He was your first love," he said in a teasing voice, instantly regretting his words when her eyes filled with tears.
"He made me see the horror of hatred and killing only because someone looks different, or comes from a different place," she had said. "He made me see how precious life is, because he made me think of all that I had lost before." Her voice had broken and she paused. "Because of him, I vowed I would marry a man of peace, not war."
Salim had gathered his wife into his arms. "Then I am glad you knew him," he said softly, "or I would never have had a chance with you." He had kissed her forehead. "'Shuah, your father was wrong, it was not your fault those soldiers were killed." Taking her chin in his hands he looked into her eyes. "You tell me the men of Gondor were already tracking your father's men. They would have come regardless. You did nothing wrong."
"I told them he was there," she whispered. "I told them to come." Her tears ran down her cheeks again. "I just did not want him to die, and instead all of those other men did."
"'Shuah, you do not control the fates of so many," Salim said as he hugged her again. "The lives of each one of us has a beginning and an end, we can only make our way between those two as best we can."
Now, sitting in her garden, Shushuah let the silent tears slide down her face as she held the leather scrap and remembered. Her husband carefully folded the letter and gave it to her, pressing it into her hand on top of the leather embossed with a white tree.
"The brother is a fine man. He and I spoke together for a while. He remembered you as soon as I told him your name." Salim covered Shushuah's hands with his own. "They are not the monsters we have been told they are, 'Shuah, just as we are not what they have been taught. He knows this, this Steward, and some of that knowledge came from you and your kindness so long ago. Because of that, we will make a peace that serves both Harad and Gondor."
Shushuah nodded and he pulled her close in a tight embrace, letting her head rest on his chest. "I love you," he said, "I am sorry I could not bring happier news."
She looked up and gave him a tremulous smile. "He did not die alone, in a strange place, surrounded by enemies, did he?"
"No," Salim's voice was sure. "He died among friends, with his King, with honor. I have the word of his brother."
"Then I am content," she said quietly. He kissed the top of her head and they sat together in the garden for a long time, each of them thinking of Gondor and of peace.