Disclaimer: All characters, events and places in my stories that can be found in Tolkien's books are his; I am merely borrowing them. Everything else has sprung from my own imagination, or has been inspired by other writers' stories. This disclaimer applies to every story in this series.
For some time now, I've been meaning to start the Elf and Ranger Tales: collections of short pre-Quest and post-Quest stories about Aragorn and Legolas.
This little tale is the first in the post-Quest series.
SEEING THE STARS OF HARAD
(co-written by Legolass and Starlight)
Of all the memories The King of Gondor had of Harad – the desert land he had visited but once since his coronation – the most pleasant was that of the varied and flavorful fare they served to honored guests. It was thus with some wonder that he noted his elf friend's apparent lack of enthusiasm over their meal.
"Why are you not touching your food, Legolas?" Aragorn asked, throwing his companion a puzzled look. He lowered his voice so that his query would not reach the ears of their host who was, fortunately, engaged in conversation with someone else. "Is it not to your liking?"
Man and Elf were sitting cross-legged in front of a low table laden with numerous Harad delicacies. They had arrived at the desert land two days ago, and Legolas had loved the food so far, so his current detachment from the fare confused the man.
Legolas sighed almost mournfully. "I cannot think about the food," he said and waved his hand-held paper fan back and forth in a vain attempt to ward off the heat. "I have to admit that I am quite disappointed."
"Disappointed?" Aragorn echoed, surprised. "About what?"
"The main reason I agreed to accompany you on this journey, besides tasting the food for which the locals are renowned, was to see those strange Stars of Harad you have talked about over the years," the elf replied unhappily, fingering his mug of scented tea. "But those clouds just seem to be conspiring against me! We have only two more nights here. If the skies do not clear enough tonight or tomorrow, I might not be granted the sight of them."
"Clouds do not tarry long in a desert sky, my friend, and your opportunity may well come tonight," Aragorn said reassuringly. "So, stop fretting and enjoy your food like I am doing."
Sighing resignedly, Legolas left his musings and looked at the man. Then his brows furrowed.
"What are you doing exactly?" he asked, staring in open confusion at his friend's plate. The king was clearly relishing the good food and was eating with unchecked vigor, but he paused occasionally to pick out a little green pepper and carefully move it to one end of the long plate, as far away from the rest of his food as he could manage. In fact, the man had made a small pile of them and seemed to be avoiding them as if they were poison.
"These, my friend," Aragorn said and pointed at the peppers, "are not for eating."
Legolas cocked his head to the side, puzzled. Why would the Haradrim cook peppers that were not for eating? he wondered. Not too anxious for an answer, and suddenly feeling hungry, he shrugged his shoulders and eagerly focused on his own food.
Before their arrival, Aragorn had heaped praise upon the quality of the food prepared by this particular Haradric tribe, but Legolas had soon found out that it surpassed his boldest expectations. He still could not believe humans could cook so well, despite how different the food was from his usual fare. If he had to describe the diet of this particular tribe with a single word, it would have to be 'rice.' Rice, fried or boiled, was an essential component of almost every meal. The rice, however, never came by itself. It was served with a variety of exotic gravies, sometimes containing meat, sometimes vegetables, but always mixed with an impressive number of spices.
Legolas grew fond of the exciting dishes very quickly, but there was one thing that the elf did not like about eating in Harad. 'Did not like' was in fact a mild way of saying what he had felt when he had first witnessed it, for he had been quite horrified at the time and had despised it with a passion. It was not what the Haradrim ate – it was how, for the desert folk ate with their hands.
Legolas could still remember his first instruction in the proper way of eating with hands. "You take your food like this," a Haradrim had said, skillfully scooping up some rice with his fingers. "And then you use your thumb to push it into your mouth."
Unable to imitate the movement, the elf had requested a spoon and fork. He was thankful that the men had managed to find him a spoon, or else he would have been forced to starve.
His initial repulsion had, however, toned down into an acceptance of it, for he soon saw that the Haradrim seemed to have mastered the art of eating with their hands so that it seemed neither uncouth nor overly messy. Indeed, the only parts of their hands that touched the food were the tips of their fingers, and after watching them for a while, the elf reluctantly admitted that the Haradrim could appear almost graceful as they ate.
Aragorn, however, was a completely different story.
The man's hands – those regal hands that could wield Anduril with neat, deadly strokes, and which frequently signed crisp, precious documents with artful flourishes of a quill – were at the moment plastered with sticky, oily gravy, rice and other unidentifiable edibles of all colors. Legolas could only stare at them with barely suppressed disgust. Aragorn, on the other hand, did not seem to mind the least, and the elf suspected that his friend – whom he knew was ever a Ranger at heart – was secretly enjoying it.
"You just seek every opportunity to get filthy, do you not?" he hissed at the man with narrowed eyes.
Aragorn looked at him in wide-eyed innocence. "Opportunity to get filthy? Not at all, mellon nîn, I am merely showing my respect for the local culture."
The elf snorted in disbelief. The man was clearly enjoying this show of 'respect for the local culture' far too much. At the moment, for example, the king was eating some fowl which could have been handled perfectly well with just two fingers, but the man somehow thought it was absolutely necessary to use all ten.
Legolas shook his head. "I thought that one of the benefits of having you crowned as a king was that I would never have to endure seeing you slowly degenerate into a grimy state again, but I now see that this has been a fool's hope. Aragorn, what would your subjects say if they could see their lord now?"
"What should they say?" Aragorn rejoined flippantly. "This is the normal manner of eating here. Even the tribal leaders eat this way, and it is not undignified." As he said this, the king tucked a wayward strand of hair behind his ear. Naturally, he had not seen it necessary to wipe his hand clean before doing that.
Legolas sucked in a breath, riveting his horrified gaze upon the now oily strand of royal hair. He had to find a way to force his friend to wash himself soon, or he was not sure he would be able to survive the rest of their stay in Harad. The elf looked away and indulged in devising cunning plans about pushing a certain former Ranger into a large body of water. Unfortunately, large bodies of water were difficult to find in the desert.
While contemplating the near impossible, his gaze fell on one of the Haradrim eating next to him. As his eyes took in the shiny, oily fingers, he was about to close his eyes when he noticed something strange. The man picked up a little green pepper from his plate and placed it in his mouth. It was the same kind of green pepper Aragorn had been painstakingly casting aside. Almost immediately, the Haradrim's hand moved to the plate once again and picked up another one. Soon he had devoured a handful of the little green peppers with a speed which rivaled that of Eldarion devouring a bowl of his favorite candied snacks.
The elf looked at Aragorn, who was still carefully separating the peppers from the rest of his food. "I thought you said those were not for eating," said the elf.
"Yes, I did," the man affirmed, promptly grabbing more rice and gravy with his hands, which made Legolas feel a sudden urge to drag the man to the Sea itself and plunge him in there. I would brave the sea-longing just to wash this oily grime off him, he thought in exasperation.
Then his attention returned to the Haradrim with the peppers. "Aragorn, that man is eating the peppers," the elf stated.
"Yes, he is," Aragorn replied and dug his fingers into a large piece of fish.
"But you said they were not for eating," Legolas said.
"That is right, they are not for eating," said Aragorn.
"Well, he is eating them."
"Yes, he is."
"And they are not for eating?"
"No, they are not."
"But he is eating them."
"Yes, he is."
Legolas finally hissed in frustration. "I fear you have spent too much time with Gandalf, Estel. You speak in riddles!"
Aragorn laughed. "I am sorry I confused you," he said, although he did not appear sorry at all. "The Haradrim eat these green peppers, but you and I would not be able to eat them."
"They are too spicy."
Legolas was not convinced. "This man just ate a handful and he does not appear the least bit affected. They cannot be that dreadful."
"Oh, they can," Aragorn answered and pushed another one towards the edge of his plate. "I tried them during my first visit to Harad and I am not about to repeat the experience."
The elf's eyes were shining with curiosity. "But if he can eat a whole handful, surely I could try one."
Aragorn sighed in resignation. "As you wish, take one. I am sure you will doubt my word no longer then."
Legolas grinned and gingerly picked up one of Aragorn's discarded peppers with a thumb and forefinger, his other fingers carefully avoiding the oily rice. A mischievous sparkle suddenly appeared in his eyes. "I will eat one if you do, too," he said.
The man shook his head. "I told you, I am not making that mistake again."
The elf raised his eyebrows. "Come now, Aragorn, you have faced the deadliest enemies and you are telling me that you are afraid of a little green pepper."
"This is not fear, my friend," the man said. "This is wisdom."
Legolas looked at him pleadingly. "Please, do it with me. If it is as terrible as you say, I do not want to do it alone. We have been together through thick and thin, through fire and death, through – "
"Fine, fine!" Aragorn yielded with a long sigh and picked up a little pepper from the pile he had made, coating it with some rice. "You cunning, manipulative creature," he mumbled. "You will be the death of me."
"Oh, surely not," the elf replied with a satisfied grin and brought the pepper to his mouth.
"Wait!" Aragorn shouted, startling the men around them.
"What?" The elf asked in surprise.
"You cannot eat it like this. I suggest you take some rice with it."
"The man who ate many peppers took no rice," Legolas pointed out.
"Yes, but you are not that man."
"Are you saying that I am weaker?"
"This is not about strength or weakness," Aragorn explained. "These men have been eating them all their lives, but you have never tried it before."
The elf studied the little pepper. "I am sure it cannot be that strong. In fact, I will take two," he said, boldly adding a second pepper to the one grasped securely between his long fingers.
Aragorn shook his head helplessly. "Legolas, I beg you, take some rice with them."
"I said I do not need it," the elf said. Frantically, Aragorn reached out to stay the elf's hand, but it was too late. The peppers had already entered the elf's mouth.
Aragorn froze in terror, the pepper clamped between his own fingers forgotten.
Legolas rolled the little green items around in his mouth and frowned. "I do not feel anything," he declared.
Aragorn breathed in relief. "The sensation comes with a little delay, and you have to bite on them," he explained. Now that awareness had returned to the man, he – very conveniently – continued to forget his own green pepper. But his warning to the elf remained. "You really ought to take some rice with – "
"No," the elf repeated obdurately. He began to chew then, closing his eyes in concentration. "I still feel nothing," he said. "Perhaps I should take two more."
"No!" Aragorn screamed. "I told you, it takes a few moments – "
Suddenly Legolas went rigid and his eyes shot open. Blood drained from his face, then rushed back within a heartbeat. He tried to suck in a deep breath, but his throat would not obey. Choking on something he could not yet put a name to, the elf felt on the verge of losing consciousness, and his hands pounded the table desperately, making all the utensils jump and rattle, and shocking the other men at the table. The elf's eyes seemed to roll into the back of his head, and quick, bright flashes of light exploded in every corner of his mind and vision.
"Aaaaah!" he gasped in a ragged, painful breath as his fingers found and gripped Aragorn's hand with the strength of a vice. "Staa-aa-aars!" he croaked brokenly. "I… see… staaaars! Haaaaah!"
Aragorn sat up in fright, at a loss for words as Legolas' other hand thrashed about. Yet, despite the alarm he felt, Aragorn could not help the smug look he threw the elf. "Well, dear friend, you desired to see the famous Stars of Harad, did you not?" he quipped, patting the elf's clenched hand. "It appears that your wish has been granted."
Legolas' only wish at that moment was in fact to scream colorful curses at Aragorn, but a throat on fire does not good speech make, and all the elf managed to do was go into a violent coughing fit. His throat was in flames. It was so dry and so hot that the very air he drew in hurt. He could not breathe!
"I… am… dying," he managed to choke out as tears poured from his eyes and ran down his face in warm rivulets.
"No, you are not," Aragorn replied as calmly as he could. "You will feel better in a short while."
"Will not… survive… a short while…" Legolas said and before Aragorn could stop him, he had grabbed a glass of water and poured the liquid down his throat.
"No!" cried the man. "That won't help! You must eat rice!"
And indeed, though the water seemed to extinguish the fire in the elf's throat while he was still drinking it, the agony grew worse as soon as he had stopped. Desperately, he gulped down another glass, and yet another, before Aragorn could prevent it, but the effort did not help. Tears continued to stream from Legolas' very blue, very tortured, eyes.
The king was truly worried now. "Legolas! You must eat rice!" he pleaded.
And so the elf ate. And ate. He had never eaten so much rice in such a short time before… and, Valar help him, he pushed it into his mouth with his hands. Both of them.
Aragorn stared at him horrified, then quickly started to help. He grabbed rice from all the nearby plates and pushed it towards Legolas. And soon two sets of oily hands were busy stuffing the elf with rice.
Around the two companions, the Haradrim could only watch with gaping mouths at first, but they soon collapsed with laughter. Offers of more rice and water came hard and fast, and sympathetic hands patted the elf on the back as he went through his death-by-green-pepper throes.
Was it the "short while" Aragorn had spoken of when Legolas finally stopped seeing stars? It felt as if three watches had gone by, even days. After an agonizing duration of time, the elf stopped breathing fire and regained control of his senses. He looked up at his friend, his fair face wet from all the tears that had poured forth in his torment.
Aragorn was not quite certain what to say. "You are red," he observed at length, torn between sympathy and mirth. Then mirth won. "You look quite charming in red."
The elf's eyes narrowed in anger as he wiped his cheeks. "No thanks to you," he said bitterly. "Why did you not warn me of the dire consequences?"
The man looked at him in genuine surprise. "I believe I did," he protested.
Legolas sighed. "I suppose you did," he said and took another sip from his glass. "But you should have done anything to stop me." He coughed again.
Aragorn studied the elf worriedly. "Are you better now?"
"I suppose I am."
Legolas could hear the anxiety in his friend's voice, and his lips curled slowly into a subtly sly smile. "No… I have almost recovered," he said. "But there is something you could do to make me feel even more comforted."
"What is it?" the man asked immediately.
"I am not sure I could ask this of you," the elf said hesitantly. "It requires a great sacrifice on your part."
"Legolas, you know I would do anything within my power," the man said, not certain of the direction the elf's words were taking.
"Anything?" Legolas said. "Well, it really pains me to ask so much of you, but if you would do anything… I suppose you could wash your hands. And that strand of hair you greased earlier." His eyes roamed quickly over Aragorn's body. "In fact, the more I think about it, perhaps you could take a bath."
Aragorn laughed. "And this would make you feel better?"
"Yes, it would," the elf replied sincerely, looking forlornly at his own messy hands.
The man nodded solemnly. "In that case, my friend, it is something I would gladly undertake for you – after we dine," he said. "I was only halfway through my meal."
So saying, Aragorn buried his hands in the food once more and resumed eating. Very soon it was impossible to imagine that this was the same man who had just spoken as if he knew the meaning of 'getting clean.'
Still, he has promised a thorough wash, the elf thought. I can wait.
Feeling quite sated from all the rice he had wolfed down, Legolas sat back and looked idly at Aragorn's food. Suddenly the elf's sharp eyes noticed something on his friend's plate. Something that he was quite sure was not supposed to be there.
It was a little green pepper set aside from the rest. The little green pepper.
"Aragorn," the elf said slowly, pointing to the item. "Did you not agree to eat this while I was consuming mine?"
Aragorn cast a look at the pepper and blinked. "Oh. I suppose I must have forgotten."
Legolas' voice was soft, barely concealing his suspicion. "Forgotten?"
"Yes, you could call it that," the man replied with a shrug of his broad shoulders. He scooped up another handful of rice, cleverly evading the daggers Legolas was shooting at him through his glare. "Come, my friend, let us finish our meal," he coaxed. "The sooner we do, the sooner I will undertake the washing you think I need."
The elf needed no second reminder of Aragorn's promise. He smiled in satisfaction. Perhaps his near-death experience had been worth it after all.
The following day, Aragorn did not meet his elven friend until the evening meal. Busy with trade discussions all morning and afternoon, he had left Legolas to explore Harad on his own. It looked as if the time had done the elf some good, for the prince appeared cheerful and completely over the painful experience of the night before.
"So how have you been whiling away the hours?" the king asked as they sat down together.
"Oh, I have been marveling at the local crafts – Harad has much to offer," the elf replied light-heartedly. "I have even spent a little time with the household staff. It has been unexpectedly educational."
"Good!" said the man, beaming. "Well, the skies seem clearer tonight. You might even get to see the stars tonight – the real ones – in the sky." Aragorn chuckled, unable to stop himself from alluding to the elf's somewhat explosive encounter with peppers the previous night.
Legolas seemed oblivious as he nodded happily. "I count on it," he replied.
Glad that the elf certainly looked contented, the king smiled and turned his attention to their hosts.
As Aragorn engaged himself in conversation, Legolas browsed the array of exotic-looking food on the table before him. The dishes looked and smelled enticing, but his eyes soon lingered – with great expectation – on the bowl of gravy standing next to Aragorn's serving of bread. The thick steaming dish would go well with the freshly baked loaves, the elf thought.
Most pleasing to him was the wonderfully rich dark color of the aromatic gravy, he decided – just perfect for hiding the hundreds of minute green pieces mixed into it, finely chopped for greatest effect. It had taken little effort to convince the Harad cook just how fond the King of Gondor was of the little green things, and how he would appreciate a generous helping of them in his gravy.
For a moment, a twinge of guilt assailed the elf, but it left him before he could take the next breath. He would apologize to Aragorn afterward, he determined, and to make amends, he would refrain from needling the Ranger-King of Gondor about washing or bathing for the next few weeks. To further relieve his conscience, the elf discreetly moved a large dish of buttered rice and several glasses of water closer to his friend's plate.
Feeling sufficiently exonerated, he laced his fingers demurely, smiled and waited patiently for the meal to begin.
After all, he already knew exactly who would be seeing the first explosion of the Stars of Harad tonight.
Dear Readers: It'd be great if you could take 2 minutes to send us a response. All reviews appreciated, even years later - thank you.
Note from StarLight: The story you just read has quite an interesting (and painful!) history. It all started when I got the incredible chance to visit Legolass on my way back home from New Zealand. She was gone for a few days during my stay, and I was left in the caring hands of some of her husband's colleagues. The men were really hospitable and intent on taking me around and showing me the spiciest food possible. One evening we were having dinner, when I noticed that one of the men was picking little green peppers out of his food and pushing them to the edge of his plate. He explained that some of his friends were able to eat handfuls of those peppers, but he was unable to take a single one. He told me to just eat my food, which was supposed to be really spicy. But it wasn't, and I told him that. A smug grin appeared on his face. "Not spicy enough for you?" He asked. "Well, try one of these." And he pointed towards the green peppers at the edge of his plate. I told him that I would eat one as long as he ate one too, and he agreed. Stubborn idiot that I am, I ate the pepper. With no rice. I have tried some chilly peppers before, but they were nothing like those little green ones. There was only one thing that helped me survive the experience, and it was imagining Aragorn and Legolas trying those same peppers. After that little incident I couldn't stop thinking about Elves and Rangers eating little green peppers, and when Legolass came back, I told her that we should write a story about it. She suggested that they would be able to try such peppers in Harad, and this is how "Seeing the Stars of Harad" came to be. Hope you enjoyed it and think about the poor Elf and Ranger next time you see the stars. :–)
Note from Legolass: Mae govannen again, my friends! Just as Legolas' very spicy adventure brought some benefit, Starlight's own spice-laden experience inspired the writing of this naughty (and I hope entertaining) little story. :–) She provided the crux of the story; I merely added ideas and embellished the story with details. I wish to thank dear, dear Starlight for this delightful experience of co-writing a story – for even the chance to write again. It's been a joy. Much love to you, Twinkly.
I'm also grateful to Starlight that she allowed me to post this story under my account, as it gives me a much needed opportunity to send my faithful readers this message: although there are ideas in my head, I am at present unable to write longer tales because of heavy commitments at work. I hope I'll be able to find time eventually. In the meantime, I'll see if I can manage some short stories such as this one. I sorely miss our interactions through your reviews, my friends, and I hope that many of you will 'drop in' to say hello so we can touch base again. Starlight and/or I will reply to any responses to the story that you leave. Thanks for reading!