SPICES OF HARAD
(by Legolass and Starlight)
This story is the sequel to Seeing the Stars of Harad (the chapter immediately preceding this) which was also co-written with Starlight. It's necessary for you to read that story first in order to understand the context of the events here.
It was not often that Legolas of the Woodland realm, son of the elven king Thranduil and unfailingly brave member of the renowned Nine Walkers, questioned the wisdom of his actions.
But tonight, as his eyes roved the starlit skies of Harad, he did.
The night seemed restful enough. It was the eve of their departure from the desert kingdom and Legolas was enjoying a cool desert breeze, the subtle scent of spices wafting in the air. Aragorn was in the tent of the Haradric Chief, Abi Jaab, no doubt sharing a last smoke with their host. It would either be the Longbottom leaf Aragorn had brought along, or one of those Haradric smokes with the fruity scents, neither of which appealed to Legolas in the least. But it was not the smoke from the pipes that troubled the elf at the moment.
The elf recalled with some regret his deed two nights prior: that night, he had – in a fit of insanity and ill-justified revenge, he now concluded – added no small amount of torturously hot chopped-up pepper into his friend's innocent-looking bowl of gravy. Legolas had immediately felt contrite over his trick afterwards, mainly because Aragorn's torment had been frighteningly displayed in choking coughs and a never-before-seen shade of red on his face. Shaken by what he saw, Legolas had immediately begged for his friend's forgiveness, but the man had – to the elf's dismay – seemed to remain displeased, and the elf had meekly accepted the King's avoidance of him for two subsequent days.
The elf sighed at the unpleasant recollection, feeling a twinge of disappointment at the distance, however small, between him and Aragorn. But the man could not remain angry with him forever, he concluded. The recent evening meal had been very satisfying – with no green peppers in sight – and the smoking session with Abi Jaab would surely put the King of Gondor in a good mood, he thought. Later tonight, he would approach his friend again to make amends. Now that they would be returning home, it would not do to continue being distanced from each other.
But the need to approach the king arose sooner than he had planned, and Legolas found himself disregarding the man's resolute silence to appeal for his help in a most unexpected situation that was nothing short of horrifying for the elf.
As Legolas stood staring up at the lamps in the sky, he was barely aware of the locals milling around him. But his attention was soon drawn to the sound of soft footsteps on the sand and the gentle rustle of silk that drew closer to his side. The footsteps stopped, and a sweet voice just behind him asked pleasantly:
"Can I please, my prince?"
Legolas spun around, surprised to see a young Haradric girl smiling up at him. He recognised her as one of the serving girls who had attended to him and Aragorn at each meal. Dark hair framed her pretty face and doe eyes, and the sheer raiment she had on did little to hide the soft curves of her form.
"Can I please?" she repeated. Her speech in Westron was heavily accented but melodious, and Legolas guessed that she had been taught to speak a little of the tongue for the benefit of the guests from Gondor.
"Can you please... what?" the elf asked kindly.
The girl's eyes softened. "Please you, my lord," she answered with no hesitation. "How, in any way, please tell me."
Legolas was not certain he had heard correctly. "I... I beg your pardon?" he stammered.
The girl's brows furrowed slightly. "You beg...?" she asked, but she quickly hid her perplexity and smiled again. "No beg. I can please you, my lord. All ways. Any ways."
The elf swallowed and took a step back. His voice, when it came out, was a croak. "Um... what?"
She reached out a slim, delicately tapered hand to place it on Legolas' chest, while her other hand brushed the length of his arm. "Do for you everything."
Legolas drew back as if he had been scorched. He shook his head in mute astonishment.
The girl was persistent. "Bath. You like. Hot bath?"
Despite the mention of the hot bath, the elf felt a sudden chill. His eyes widened and his mouth went dry. Still, he managed to retain enough of his senses to say hoarsely: "No. Th - thank you. No."
The girl was not fazed. She batted her eyes a few times and smiled even more earnestly. "Come!" she said invitingly, tugging at the elf's arm. "I give you hot bath. Good oil. I put, I wash. Abi Jaab gift. Good, nice gift."
Legolas felt faint. He wriggled free of the girl's grasp as politely as he could and shook his head again. "No - no, please. Do not trouble yourself," he murmured.
The girl's nose scrunched up attractively and she latched on to the elf's arm again. "No trouble!" she insisted, flashing while teeth. "I please. Hot bath! Abi Jaab said – I do, I please anything."
And the elf's panic reached new heights when she added: "This way, your sleeping place! Best perfume oil, I put, I rub – everywhere!"
All thoughts of politeness flew away with the desert breeze. Legolas pulled his arm free and fled in terror, walking at a desperate pace in the direction of the Chieftain's tent. He could hear the girl calling out to him in alarm. "My lord! My lord! I can please!"
The more loudly she called, the faster the elf went, till he was almost running, his long golden hair cascading wildly around his shoulders. Upon reaching Abi Jaab's grand and colourful tent, he lifted the flap and rushed in before the Haradric guards could announce his presence.
"Aragorn!" he called to his friend, his eyes big blue orbs in his ashen face.
Abi Jaab and the King of Gondor were seated on comfortable cushions. As Legolas had guessed, they were smoking the long pipes favoured by the desert people, the citric smell of ashiish permeating the tent. But the elf did not even notice the smoke that would normally have bothered him.
"Aragorn, help!" he hissed.
Both rulers sat bolt upright and looked at him in surprise.
"What is the matter, Prince?" Abi Jaab queried. "Is there a problem?"
Legolas seemed to only just become aware of the Chieftain's presence and acknowledged him with a sheepish nod. "Please, excuse my – er – my intrusion," the elf muttered. "I need to speak with Arago – with King Elessar."
"You asked for help," the Chieftain said. "You require assistance? How can we help?"
"Yes, Legolas, what is wrong?" Aragorn addressed him for the first time in two days, a spark of concern in his grey eyes.
Legolas swallowed, suddenly at a loss to explain his predicament. "The girl..." he began, pointing vaguely in the direction from which he had come. "She can please... er... she –"
"Prince!" an eager voice hailed from outside before the girl burst into the tent, her attractive face troubled, almost afraid. She stopped abruptly at the entrance and bowed to the men inside, a hand to her forehead in the style of the Haradric women. "My lords," she said meekly.
Abi Jaab raised his hands, palms upturned in query. "What is the matter?" he asked, looking from Legolas to the girl. Then, frowning, he spoke rapidly to her in their tongue, receiving swift, agitated responses in return.
Legolas could only surmise that the Chief was questioning the girl to learn what had taken place, and her expression told the elf that she was rather distressed. Aragorn could only watch uncomprehendingly.
Abi Jaab did not seem pleased. "Did she upset you?" the Chief asked Legolas suddenly. "She was instructed to see to your comforts and your needs tonight. If she does not please you, I can arrange for another – "
"No!" the elf cried immediately, his fair face even more distraught. Glancing at the frightened face of the young girl, he felt sorry for her and quickly added: "No, Chief, she did not upset me! She – she... that is, I – I do not – er –"
Understanding at last the situation before him, Aragorn stood quickly and chimed in. "My elven friend here is trying to explain that he did not expect such hospitality from your people, Abi Jaab, and is thus uncertain what to do," he said smoothly. "But he is very grateful for the service your beautiful helpers offer."
So saying, Aragorn turned to Legolas. "Are you not, Legolas?" The warning look the man flashed clearly said: Do not refuse this service. We do not want to offend them.
Taken aback at what Aragorn was all but insisting, the elf's initial instinct was to – once gain – flee. But more than a decade and a half in the court of Gondor had taught him that what was reasonable in one realm was not always so in another. Swallowing nervously, he replied. "Yes," he squeaked, horrifying himself.
Legolas could hear the small sighs of relief that came from both his friend and the girl who had been assigned to serve him. The thought flashed through his mind that it was all very well to have saved them both unpleasantness, but what was he supposed to do now? He had no wish to be ministered to in a hot bath – and by a stranger! And what might she expect after that? He shot Aragorn a pleading look, but the man's expression revealed nothing of what he was feeling. The elf felt dejected.
Surprisingly, it was Abi Jaab who provided Legolas some relief. He laughed loudly as he stood up and walked over to Legolas to clap him on the back. "Don't worry, my friend," he said reassuringly. "Zahra is very good. She will merely prepare your bath, make sure you have everything you need and give you whatever help you require. She will do no more and no less than what you ask."
Legolas looked over to where Zahra stood; she was smiling enthusiastically in concurrence with her Chieftain's assurances. A spot of color returned to the elf's cheeks, but in truth, he felt little more at ease now than when he had first received her offer of service.
"Come, Legolas, I'm sure you're fortunate to receive such attention," Aragorn said, steering his friend towards the tent entrance. Legolas knew that the king's words were for the benefit of their host, but the man's softer tone was the first sign that he might be feeling a little sympathetic about his friend's discomfiture after all.
"I get ready!" Zahra announced happily and exited the tent before them.
Reluctantly, as if on feet of lead chained to iron weights, Legolas followed, relieved only by the knowledge that Aragorn was close behind him. As soon as they were outside and when Zahra was far away enough from them, the elf gripped the man's arm and led him quickly to a darkened spot where fewer people could hear them talking. To ensure further privacy, he whispered in Sindarin.
"Aragorn! Why did you make me accept this – this... service?" the elf hissed. "I do not want it!"
The king could not help his amused grin now. "It is only a bath, Legolas," he said placatingly. "Enjoy it."
"I can bathe very well on my own!" the elf protested.
"As could I," Aragorn replied. "But it is a service they provide to their honoured guests before they leave, and I would not embarrass our hosts."
Legolas' fine eyebrows knitted. "Is someone tending to you too then?"
Aragorn was unruffled. "I would not be surprised," he said coolly. "But then, they have full knowledge that I am a married man, and the arrangements might be a little different."
Legolas did not look appeased in the slightest. "You – or Men – or the people here – may not be troubled by the attention of strange females," he grumbled. "But we do not do this in my woods!"
Aragorn glanced at the girl as she made her way towards Legolas' tent. "Zahra will make delightful company though, will she not?"
The elven eyes widened. "You know there is no need for it! You know I do not want her waiting on me," Legolas stated firmly. He threw up his hands in exasperation. "How do I even make conversation with her?"
The king laughed, clearly enjoying himself. "Did Gimli not once observe – let me see...," he rubbed his chin in an exaggerated gesture of reflection, "if I recall correctly what he told me – did he not say that you could charm the tusks off an oliphaunt?"
Legolas glared at his friend with eyes as hard as blue ice, and pointed stiffly at the rapidly diminishing figure of Zahra. "That, Aragorn, is not an oliphaunt!"
The man laughed even harder. "No, Legolas, she certainly is not! And I dare say it would be easier for you to talk to one!" The chuckles continued. "This is precious! One would almost think you'd prefer to suffer the heat of green peppers."
The elf did indeed begin contemplating that choice when a sudden thought entered his mind, and his eyes narrowed. "Did you... did you by any chance – or design – arrange for this, Aragorn?" he asked carefully.
"Nay, Legolas!" the king replied immediately, still laughing. "I did not. Why would you think that?"
The elf studied his friend's face and saw no lie there. Sighing, his own features took on a look of genuine remorse. "Because of... the green peppers, and what I did to you," he said dolefully. "I suppose this is my punishment – this awkward... entirely unwanted... circumstance."
At Legolas' misery, Aragorn grasped the elven shoulders and said reassuringly: "It will not be that terrible, Legolas. What Abi Jaab said is true. Just tell Zahra to prepare your bath and wait outside till you finish. That way, my friend, she would have carried out her task and you would be none the worse off."
Somewhat mollified by the man's reassurance and his use of the words my friend after two days of silence, the elf breathed more easily, and managed a wan smile. "Perhaps so, though I suspect it will not be as easy as you say," he said, regaining his composure. "But I would thank you not to let this state of affairs be such a source of amusement for you."
The elf appeared so wretched that Aragorn nodded and fought the temptation to laugh, his cheeks aching with the effort.
"Well, all this has brought about one good thing at least," Legolas said resignedly.
Aragorn was curious. "What might that be?"
The elf's reply was soft and meek. "You are speaking with me again," he said. He looked doubtfully at the man. "I am truly sorry for what I did with the peppers, Estel. Do I have your forgiveness?"
Aragorn, whose silence over the two days had in truth been more out of disbelief rather than anger at Legolas' misdeed, smiled and drew his friend close.
"A bond such as ours has seen little equal, Legolas," he said with sincerity. "It can surely survive much more tempest and greater tests. We do not cease to be friends because of some puny green peppers."
Legolas felt a great weight lifted off him. And so the elf was able to endure the rest of the night's activities with a lighter heart. Dutifully – if hesitantly – he accepted Zahra's bath and assistance, though he found the effort of keeping her from fawning over him both awkward and torturous. He had to graciously but firmly stay or temper her numerous and zealous offers to remove his shoes and his clothes, and to wash him, and to comb his hair, and to soften his skin, and then to loosen his muscles and dress him again. There were no amorous motives in all she did, but his unease and discomfort were great nonetheless.
Legolas was exhausted beyond belief at the conclusion of the bath and Zahra's ministrations. But at least he had spoken with Aragorn, and what was most important, he thought, was that the matter of the green peppers was concluded. That night, he slept with a smile on his face.
Little did either of the friends anticipate that when the morning came, that fair elven countenance, which had been so full of confidence upon retiring the night before, would once again be marred by doubt.
Standing in the rising heat of the Harad sun, the elf watched as Aragorn and his company gathered outside a large tent that had been the living quarters of the King of Gondor in Harad for two weeks. They were about to depart, and some of the men were loading their belongings on to a wagon while others prepared the horses for the long journey home.
Legolas stood by his own horse, stroking its nose absently. He was a picture of disinterested composure – till he overheard a dialog between the King and his valet from the Gondorian escort and espied a curious-looking pouch changing hands between them.
Aragorn peeked into the pouch he had been handed, sniffed at its contents and asked his valet: "More of the spices?"
The eager-faced man nodded. "Yes, Sire, as you requested! The first batch has been sent with the riders that have gone ahead."
The elf stiffened.
Spices? Sent ahead... for what purpose? he wondered.
Legolas thought that he had seen and heard the last of any spicy threats coming his way. With his eyes glued to the pouch and the taste of a painful memory upon his tongue, he listened in trepidation to the rest of the men's conversation.
"A three-day ride in this scorching desert before we come to more pleasant surroundings," Aragorn remarked as he closed the pouch. "I shall welcome a good meal and some fine wine at the end of the road."
"I have no doubt that you will find them awaiting you, Sire," said the valet. "The earlier group will see to it. They will ride much faster and arrive a day before us. The Queen will be expecting you."
"And all that I sent?" asked the king.
The valet nodded. "As you instructed, my lord."
"Good, very good," said the king, returning the pouch and looking around. Of a sudden, the man turned and caught Legolas' intense perusal of him. He immediately threw the elf a question and an invitation: "You will dine with us when we reach home, Legolas?"
The elf almost froze in the desert sun. "Dine?"
There was slight surprise in the king's voice. "Yes. Would you like to dine with us? That should not be a strange notion."
Legolas gulped, trying not to let his hesitation be too obvious. "I had thought... that I might return immediately to Ithilien... part ways at the Crossroads," he said as convincingly as he could. His hands were fiddling pointlessly with the laces on his shirt, but his eyes darted to the pouch in the valet's hand. It was just for the briefest of moments, but Aragorn had seen it.
The man erupted in laughter and he shook his head. "Come now, Legolas," he said. "Surely you don't think that I would use those little green demons in our food, do you?"
The elf's eyes widened in horror at the mere thought. Aragorn laughed again as he walked over to the elf and clapped a hand on his shoulder, releasing a small cloud of dust-like sand into the air.
"There will be no green peppers in any dish that awaits us," he said. "Those spices are anise and cumin – what you enjoyed so much in our lamb. Some sea salt as well."
"But... what you sent ahead?" the elf asked timidly.
"For Arwen," the man answered readily. "Sweet gifts from Harad."
Doubt flickered still in the elven eyes, and again, Aragorn perceived it.
"I have seen what the peppers can do to novices, and one near-death experience is enough for each of us," the man said, smiling. "I would not subject either of us to it again, my friend."
The elf exhaled the breath that he had been holding and he lowered his eyes, his long lashes closing over the bright blue orbs. "You are far kinder to me than I was to you, Aragorn," he whispered.
The king cleared his throat. "No need for such words, Legolas. I am not faultless."
"I did not say you were, Aragorn," the elf rejoined, smiling now. "You were just... kinder... in this matter."
Aragorn looked a little embarrassed. "Well, no more green peppers," he promised. "Only the mildest of Haradric spices. I'm sure they will be well used."
All traces of worry finally erased from his face, Legolas beamed and leapt lightly on to his horse. "Let us be off then. I am impatient for the comforts of home."
With a matching broad smile, the king mounted his own horse and cast a look around at their escort. Satisfied that all was in order, he gave the signal to proceed. After a brief stop to exchange words of farewell at the tent of Abi Jaab, the King's company set off on their return journey to Gondor on a joyful note.
"A happily concluded visit, would you not say, Estel?" asked Legolas brightly, and proceeded to recount some of the interesting experiences they had encountered during their stay.
Aragorn listened with fond indulgence to the light-hearted speech of his elven companion on their ride. Yes, the trade negotiations had been very fruitful; yes, what strange plants; yes, what music! and yes, the new culture was fascinating! And the food! And the stars! Aragorn could not help wincing at the reminder of his excruciating ordeal with the pepper-ridden gravy caused by the very speaker who was now alluding to it with amusement, and he shot the elf a glare that he half-meant. But Legolas went on to narrate other experiences, and his silvery laughter was so clear and genuine that it went straight to the heart of the man who held him dear. Aragorn realised how he had missed that laugh, somewhat regretting the two days during which he had ignored his friend.
So radiant was the elf now as his golden hair glinted in the brilliance of a Harad morning and so cheerful was his sunlit countenance that – for a fleeting moment – Aragorn entertained a measure of regret over two particularly spicy packages he had sent ahead to Gondor with the first group of riders. The king had not lied to Legolas earlier: the gifts were indeed meant for Arwen. What the man had elected not to mention was that the spices would first be delivered to the elf, and that the elf would be obliged to partake of them.
But the twinge of guilt went as quickly as it had come. No, much as I love you, Legolas, you deserve this, the king decided. In fact, many other men in your place would thank me for it.
After all, why should a man – or an elf – complain about two spicy treats like Zahra and her twin Zobeeda, who, at Aragorn's request and with Abi Jaab's blessings, had willingly agreed to serve the Queen of Gondor for a year, but only after waiting on the elf prince hand and foot for at least the first two weeks? Legolas had cleverly convinced the cooks in Harad that the King of Gondor enjoyed green peppers; it had been just as easy for Aragorn to convince Abi Jaab of Legolas' unexpected pleasure in having Zahra tend to him. The Chieftain's explicit instruction to Zahra and Zobeeda was to not be put off by the prince's apparent refusal of their services; the elf was – according to the King of Gondor – "merely too modest to ask for them."
Ah, yes, the man thought in secret delight. A most satisfactory arrangement indeed.
The king drew in a deep breath, the delicious taste of retribution chasing away unpleasant memories of a bowl of dark gravy.
In the shadow of the head cover that gave his face some protection from the desert sun, Aragorn smiled smugly, while the elf chattered on, blissfully ignorant of the torment that awaited him.
Legolas, my friend, the king said silently. You are about to live the longest, spiciest two weeks of your life.
(Note: The comment that Legolas could charm the tusks off an oliphaunt was made by Gimli in my story In Shadow Realm and - let's assume - recounted to Aragorn afterwards.)
It's been ages since I posted, so I don't know if you're still interested in reading. This sequel (the follow-up from Seeing the Stars of Harad that Starlight so delightfully initiated before) has been in my mind for some time. Starlight is very busy herself, but I'm grateful that she managed to find time to contribute to this little story as well.
I hope this little offering will allow me some of the contact with online readers and friends that I miss so terribly. We hope you enjoyed it, and we hope to hear from you. :-)
Till next we meet – may the light of the stars shine on you and may the rest of your year be spicy!
(and though Starlight is too immersed in her work and studies, I'm sure she says a big, warm hello as well)