A/N: This is a story about Aragorn through strangers' eyes. More than that, though, it's about a family trying to retain their humanity in the face of generations of war. This story will be largely driven by the original characters. It's different from anything I've written before, but I hope you enjoy it, nonetheless.
Huge, massive thanks to Cairistiona, an awesome sounding board and cheerleader, without whom this would never have seen the light of day.
This story is set in the Third Age, 3019 and Third Age, 2980.
A bead of sweat slowly trickles down my neck. The White City is stifling. No stray breeze breeches the stone walls to ameliorate my discomfort. I take another swig from my water skin. The goat hide bag is nearly empty. If we are not granted an audience soon, I will have to chance leaving my fellows for a few minutes to refill it at one of Minas Tirith's public wells. I let out a small snort of derision. It is ironic that I, a man born and raised under the Harad's blazing sun, should suffer from overheating so far north in this foreign land. I cannot help it, and neither can the other Haradrim clustered around me. We are not used to this type of heat. My white headdress and loose robes stand no chance of repelling the seeping, smothering warmth that envelopes us now.
Humidity. The Westron word still sounds strange in my mind. It has no translation—nor indeed, any comparable concept—in my dialect of Haradric. Dakheel tried to explain it to me long ago—how in wetter lands water is even carried by the wind. Only a boy at the time, I was convinced that this was far too wondrous to be true, and told him so. The man merely laughed. "Wondrous?" he said in his strange, melodious accent, "Say that after you've ridden in it for three straight weeks."
As I sweat in the enclosed courtyard, I realize that, as usual, Dakheel had the right of it. Water in Gondor is not the precious gift I remember from my homeland. Here it is the constant invader. It crashes over masonry, and bridges lose their firmness. It seeps into the earth, making mud that sucks at your boots and grinds into your clothes. It steals into the very air, turning normal, familiar heat into an oppressive blanket that slips under our robes and turns even our own sweat against us.
As always, we Haradrim bear it because we must. I glance around at my companions with no small amount of pride. They are mostly old gray-beards, like me. Here and there I see the clean-shaven face of a younger son or the veiled form of a woman. Off to one side a few Umbari stand with a delegation from Khand. The men of Umbar sweat like pigs through their fine robes and turbans. They clearly think themselves important men, primly ignoring any man of Harad who dares to address them. I almost laugh. These lordlings are as desperate as we are, or they would not be here. What do they seek to ransom, I wonder? That fine fleet I passed on the river?
By now, everyone has heard the ignoble tale of Umbar's defeat; to us, it is a darkly humorous story to offset all the tragedy we've experienced in this brutal war. Traders and bards from the north have told how the grand Corsair navy was caught off guard and defeated by a mere thirty men. To hear the Gondorim tell it, thousands of seasoned sailors and mercenaries simply turned tail and ran for fear of Gondor's ghosts. Though I am sure the storytellers exaggerate, I cannot help but join my fellow Haradrim in a hearty laugh at the Umbari's expense.
Mirth at the recollection lasts only a moment. I run my thumb over the coin pouch at my belt and sigh. I have brought all of the coin I possess and the greater part of my wife's jewelry, yet still the bag is light. So light . . . it may not be enough to buy back what is most precious to me in the world: my son. The old customs dictate that a prisoner of war may be bought back by his family for a suitable ransom, but who knows? The Haradrim are a defeated people. Our grand army is scattered, our ally in Mordor utterly annihilated, and even the all-seeing Eye has been put out. What customs can survive such an upheaval? I have no assurance, merely the hope that this pitiful boon will be enough to spare my child a life as a captive in a foreign land.
A ragged boy drifts in my direction, his expression carefully disinterested. His pale eyes flicker towards my purse once . . . twice . . . I casually push back my outer robe, giving the boy a good look at the long sword belted just behind the purse. It's a good sword, despite its age, and is probably itself Gondorian in origin. My companions are not nearly as well armed. A few bear cutlasses, but most are trying to pass of their tanning knives or cleavers as legitimate weapons. The pickpocket's eyes twitch, and he calmly saunters off to seek easier fare.
Though this courtyard is walled on three sides, the fourth side is more or less open to the street. Gondorim of all ages and social classes pass by. Many gray eyes dart in our direction, their expressions ranging from curiosity to apprehension to blatant loathing. Disdainful Westron speech drifts our way. A few of my fellows look to me for a translation, but I shake my head. They don't want to know what the Northerners are saying about us.
My adventure in the North is not turning out anything like I expected. I smile a little, remembering the young boy who dreamed of great deeds in far-off lands. Shifting under the weight of so many hostile eyes, I let my mind drift, remembering another pair of gray eyes that once gazed on me—eyes similar and yet completely different.
The sun beat down steadily on the craggy wilderness of Haradwaith. I tipped my head back, smiling as the dry wind wicked away the sweat from my brow. I loved this time of day—when the sting of the afternoon heat began to fade, the winds stilled, and the only sound was the soft braying of the goats. I leaned back against a boulder. From my vantage point, I could see most of the herd spread out over the rocky terrain. The goats seemed possessed by the same laziness that afflicted me. Most lay with their heads on their forelegs or paced aimlessly back and forth. A few lipped halfheartedly at the sparse, browning foliage. It was the hottest summer anyone could remember, and the heat affected both man and beast.
I wasn't too worried, though; with only an hour of daylight left, it would soon be time for Father, Kalima, and I to take the goats back to the fold. I stole a glance at my father where he stood, still as a statue, in the slight shade of a rock formation. Usually, Father works in our fields to the west during the day, repairing and maintaining our elaborate irrigation system in preparation for sowing. He trusts my little sister and me to safeguard the herd. Kalima is only eight, though, and with one of our best does due to kid any day now, he chose to join us today.
I leaned my head back against the rock and laughed when an inquisitive snout began to lip at my headdress. I reached up to bat one of the goats—a yearling buck—away. My hand came away wet and sticky. Startled, I retracted the arm and studied my palm. The tanned skin was smeared with red. Blood. I turned to examine the goat. The small animal shook his head irritably. There was no sign of injury, but the buck had dark streaks of red along his muzzle. Prying the goat's mouth open, I looked closely for wounds. Nothing. The goat snorted and butted firmly against my chest. He seemed unhurt, which could only be possible if the blood wasn't his.
Raising my head, I surveyed the herd with a worried frown. All of our animals were present and accounted for. I gave the buck one last pat before climbing to my feet. Moving cautiously, I climbed the heavy ridge at my back. Along the way, I collected a few stones that might fit in my sling. Where there was blood there were often predators. I gained the summit and scanned the broken land to the north. At first I saw nothing—just cracked earth peeking up from under sun-baked rocks and sparse vegetation. Then, a rare wisp of cloud veiled the sun's glare, allowing me a better look at a still form I had taken for a rock a hundred yards distant.
I glanced over my shoulder. "Father, there's something out there!" The wind picked up again, ruffling fabric. "I think it's a man!" I jogged lightly down the far slope and trotted towards the unmoving figure. Slowly, it resolved from a dark lump on the horizon to the silhouette of a man lying prone on the earth. I slowed to a walk, suddenly afraid to go any closer. Finally, I stopped just a few yards away and studied the man.
There came a clatter of rocks from behind me. I turned to see not my father, but my little sister running towards me, her ever-awry headscarf trailing behind her. Kalima's skirts flapped, and curiosity sparkled in her dark eyes. As she neared me, I reached out and caught her around the shoulders. "Stay back, Kali," I murmured. She pouted.
I looked behind us. Father was making his way down the ridge as quickly as his bow-legged gait would allow, but it would be long moments before he reached us. The man stirred slightly. I gave my sister a stern look of warning and then advanced slowly. The man had apparently given up on movement; he did not stir again. His clothes were . . . outlandish. Instead of a goat-skin robe, he was wrapped in a dusty cloak of the same dark green as Mother's best dress. In place of sandals, he wore battered boots made of some type of leather and reaching almost to his knees. What from a distance had appeared to be a black headdress was actually dark, tangled hair. This detail alone was enough to mark him as a foreigner; all who traveled the Haradwaith knew to cover their heads against the sun's rays.
I crouched by the man's side. Still, he did not move. The skin of his hands and neck was red and blistered from the sun. I summoned my nerve, gripped his shoulder, and carefully turned him to lie face up. The man was at least semi-conscious; his cracked lips moved soundlessly, though his eyes were closed. He bled sluggishly from a shallow cut on his forearm. The sun glinted off a bright pin in the shape of a seven-pointed star at his shoulder and a gleaming sword at his belt. There was something around his neck . . . I leaned forward for a better view, and my shadow fell briefly across his face.
His eyelids fluttered half open and I jumped back as though scalded. Sensing my nervousness, Kalima jumped too. "What is it, Hakim?" I didn't answer immediately. As soon as I'd moved, the foreigner's eyes had slammed shut against the sun. He continued to mouth soundlessly, and as my heart rate slowed, my face colored.
Father jogged up to us, panting for breath. "What is the matter, Hakim?"
"His eyes . . . look at his eyes." My father approached the man and knelt at his side. I blushed deeper. I knew I'd overreacted, but try it sometime—looking into a pair of eyes expecting to see natural brown or black and instead . . .
"Gray eyes," Father pried open one of the stranger's eyelids, revealing an eye the color of storm clouds that gleamed like the brooch on his shoulder, "A sign that he's probably from Gondor." Father turned to me with a knowing twinkle in his eyes. "You have been listening to too many old wives tales, my son." I looked away, hoping that the flush in my face could be mistaken for a trick of the light. It was hardly my fault! Every child from here to the Southern Wastes is told the legend of the Silver-Eyed Man who wanders the desert after dark looking for victims.
I shook my head to clear it. "This is . . . natural, then?"
My father leaned back. "It's not unheard of. Many of the Gondorim have eyes of strange colors. Some resemble the sky, others the grass. A few . . ." He gestured towards the unmoving man.
"Well, I think they're pretty," That was Kali, of course; she never had taken the old fairy tales very seriously. Her own nut-brown eyes were as big as walnuts. "Is he sick, Abba?"
Father frowned. "He's been in the desert too long." He lifted a water skin from the stranger's belt, empty of even a drop. "He's not equipped for it." My father scanned the horizon, murmuring to himself. "Thirty-five leagues to the Harnen in the west, fifty to Khand in the east. So he must have come south . . . from Ephel Dúath . . ." His eyes lit on the sword at the foreigner's side. He unbuckled it and examined the blade. "He's a warrior . . ." I could see the conflict played out in my father's eyes. On the one hand, custom demands that a traveler in need be given shelter, even be he an enemy. But, no one has really followed that custom in years; with the war raging on our north-western front, we could not afford to trust any Northerner, much less one arrayed for combat. A former soldier himself, Father had doubtless seen many Gondorian warriors. I had not. The only Gondorim now found in our lands were in the dwindling slave markets.
"Abba? Is he going to die?" My father looked up into Kalima's frightened eyes and seemed to come to a decision.
"Of course not, little one. We'll get some water into him and he'll be fine. Hakim, pass me your water skin." I hurried to pass him the half-full skin. Father carefully raised it and splashed a tiny amount of water over the man's dry, bleeding lips. After a tense moment, the foreigner responded, licking his lips and swallowing without opening his eyes. Father raised the skin again, and this time the other man almost leaned into it, gulping greedily. We let out a collective breath; if a man could drink on his own, it boded well for his recovery.
Father gave him about half of the remaining contents of the skin before straightening and twisting the lid back on. He turned to my sister. "Listen to me, Kalima; you are to collect the herd, bring them back to the fold, and come straight home, do you understand?"
She pouted again. "But Abba . . ."
"Kalima. Now." Scowling furiously, the child turned and trudged back towards the herd. Father waved me forward and I hesitantly knelt at the stranger's other side. "Help me get him up."
I lifted his wounded arm gingerly. "What about this?" The man's forearm was bound with a torn strip of cloth that was no longer sufficient to staunch the blood flow.
Father glanced at the injury. "It will keep for the moment. We need to move him."
I pulled the limp arm over my shoulder and stood slowly as my father supported his other side. I did my best not to sway under the weight; the man stood at least a head taller than Father and I, and in the clutches of delirium, he was so much dead weight. "We're taking him to the house?"
Father shook his head, grunting slightly as we took a few awkward steps forward. "I don't want him around your mother and sister. We can find some space in the back of the storage barn." I swallowed sudden trepidation; the back rooms of our barn haven't been used in decades—not since my great-grandfather sold the last of his slaves.
My ancestors were among the earliest landowners in this region, back when the villages were just scattered trading posts for the great caravans. To hear my father tell it, his great-great-grandfather, Tamir, owned more than five hundred goats and twenty servants. In those days, our harvests were plentiful, despite the eternal harshness of the land. Tamir could grow eight different kinds of crops on the terraced hillside to the west, the fields fed with water carefully collected from the surrounding hilltops during the rainy season. Our cisterns and irrigation canals were the envy of the region. Time topples all kingdoms, though. As the price of grain fluctuated, Tamir's descendants had less and less to spend on maintaining the elaborate systems of clay and mortar. As irrigation failed, the desert slowly reclaimed what it had lost, until only two fields remained arable. My family survived by relying on the goat fleece provided by our herds. In the past few generations, even that had become untenable. As the land yielded less and less grain and we could feed fewer and fewer animals, my forebears were forced to sell off more and more of the estate. Many of the outbuildings—no longer needed for the rapidly shrinking herd—fell into disrepair. My father was just a boy when Tamir's grandson sold his last slave and released the bondsmen. By then, a once sprawling compound was reduced to two buildings: the main house and the shearing barn, which now also acted as a store house for feed, fleece, and tools. It was to this building that we took the foreigner.
We laid him down on an ancient straw pallet. The man barely stirred. Under the sunburn, his face was almost gray. My father removed the stranger's cloak and made him drink the remaining contents of the water skin before leaving to fetch my mother, who had some skill in healing. That was almost twenty minutes ago. I wondered what was keeping them.
A rustle reached my ears, and I glanced up quickly. A mouse disappeared behind a sack of feed. Our new "guest" did not stir. Though the man was clearly no threat in his current condition, I still found myself a bit jumpy in his presence. To calm my nerves, I cast a contemplative glance around the narrow room. It was simple—like everything else on our estate. When my great-grandfather had begun quartering slaves here he had hastily erected a twelve foot wooden partition to separate this area from the main barn. The other three walls stretched up nearly twenty feet, with high, narrow windows allowing light and ventilation. These were made of mudbrick which, while rougher than the adobe found in the house, nonetheless resisted heat quite well. Three pallets lined the far wall where my great-grandfather's slaves once slept. Since my grandfather's time, the space had been used only for occasional storage. From my childhood explorations, I knew that a set of shackles lay hidden under a sack in the corner, but they were old and dusty—rusted almost beyond use.
I turned my attention to boring a hole through the green coconut in my lap. The tough, fibrous hide resisted my knife. My arm strained as I forced the blade through. Finally, the sharp hiss of escaping gas told me I had succeeded in poking a small hole. After twisting the knife a little to widen it, I upended the fruit and poured its juice into a simple earthen cup. I was careful not to spill a drop; coconut water was prized as the best cure for dehydration.
The cup was full, the coconut was empty, and still there was no sign of my father. I glanced uncertainly from the cup to the stranger and back again. The man's lips had dried and were cracking open once again. They continued to move soundlessly, as though repeating a word or phrase over and over. I stood, chiding myself for cowardice, and stepped over to his pallet. Kneeling by his side, I used one trembling hand to lift his head while the other raised the cup to his lips. Once again, the man gulped greedily. I took the opportunity to study him more closely. His skin was red and blistered from the sun, but from what I could tell his natural skin tone was far lighter than mine. Dark hair, still damp with sweat, fell nearly to his collar—longer even than Father's. His lanky frame was swathed in close-fitting garments of some finely woven material, though the clothing was as dirtied and weather-beaten as the rest of him. Over this, he wore a sleeveless leather tunic that reached only to mid-thigh, laced up the front and secured with a broad leather belt. His left forearm was tightly bound with material of the same dark green as his cloak. Glancing across the room at the discarded garment, I noted the frayed hemline where he'd cut strips away.
I tipped the last few drops of coconut water down the man's throat and gently lowered his head to the pallet. The movement shifted his tunic, and I again glimpsed a dark string around the man's neck. Hesitantly, I tugged at the embroidered collar, exposing a beaded bag secured around his neck by a leather thong. Moving slowly so as not to wake the man from his delirium, I pulled the pouch free and lifted it over his head. It was a tiny thing; the bag fit easily into the palm of my hand. Curious, I reached for the drawstring.
Footsteps and the sound of a door being pulled open diverted my attention. My father stood in the doorway holding a basin of water, a dark figure at his side. I sprang to my feet. It took a moment to recognize the veiled, black-robed figure as my mother; I had seen her cover herself on only a handful of occasions. I offered the pouch to my father. "He had this around his neck."
He took it and dumped a small, silvery object onto his palm. Father held the object up to the light and let out a low whistle. Peering at it closely, I immediately understood the stranger's need to keep it concealed. The object was a large silver ring, carefully engraved and set with small precious stones. My father's voice was slightly awestruck. "He must be someone important—a noble, even. Look, are those emeralds?"
My mother was not so easily impressed. She gave a low snort. "Glass and gilt paint, more likely." She advanced on the unconscious stranger cautiously, as though he were a wild animal. Her tone was speculative. "Now, those clothes—they might have been worth something. Look at the embroidery on that tunic. Pity it's ruined." When the stranger did not react to her voice, Mother's apprehension seemed to fade. She knelt at his side and lifted his arm, inspecting it with a critical eye. "He must have wrapped it himself. Well, he knows his bandaging, at least." Her deft, gentle fingers gave lie to the brusque tone in her voice as she carefully unwound the crude bandage. It looked as if the stranger had simply wound the strip of cloth over his shirt, allowing the sleeve to form the first bandage layer. Drawing a small knife, Mother carefully cut and tugged away the ruined sleeve, revealing a deep, ragged gash that reached from the outside of his elbow to mid-forearm.
"It's not a battle wound," Mother said at last as she steeped a clean cloth in water to clean the wound, "He most likely fell and struck it on a rock."
I stared at a wound so deep bone showed through. "What kind of rock leaves does that kind of damage?"
My parents exchanged a significant look. "None found here," my father said softly.
I looked at the stranger, hearing again childhood tales of mountain rocks edged with razor and remembering my father's earlier words. "Ephel Dúath?"* I breathed.
My mother brushed a hand across the man's brow. What little I could see of her brow was wrinkled in concern. "This is not ordinary desert sickness, nor even infection. He burns hot, then flashes cold. And, the air is cool now, he should not still be sweating."
My father runs a worried hand through his beard. "I have heard of such symptoms. They are common among those who walk in the Lord's land without leave."**
For long moments, my mother didn't respond. Under the heavy black veil, her eyes were even more difficult than usual to read. Finally, she lifted the damp cloth and began to carefully sponge away blood. "This wound is about three days old, but there's no sign of swelling, so he may have escaped infection. If he is to survive, though, we must remedy the loss of water. Hakim, bring up three more coconuts from the cellar, then go help your sister with the milking." I recognized the dismissal in her voice. With strange reluctance, I turned and trudged toward the cellar. I never heard the conversation that followed.
"Have I angered you, Asima?"
"I would not call it anger, Azzam. I simply cannot believe that you would put us all in danger by harboring this . . . foreigner."
"You know the old customs, my wife; a traveler in need must be given succor."
"I know the customs. I also know that they were not developed with armed Gondorian warriors in mind."
"Now, really, Asima, you speak as if you expect him to murder us all in our sleep!"
"Don't you? What reason does a decent man have for being so far from his homeland so armed? For spying on the Dark Lord's own land? Azzam, this man is dangerous!"
"I . . . I know."
"Then why did you bring him here? The war has nothing to do with us, why expose us to a Gondorian warrior?"
"I couldn't . . . I couldn't leave him there. Not with Kalima watching. Perhaps I should have simply eased his passing, but . . . I could not do so in front of our daughter . . ."
"He sleeps for now. And, he burns yet. Perhaps the Mordor illness will yet undo your folly."
A/N: The Haradric culture I depict in this fic was derived from a variety of desert-dwelling societies. They are not meant to represent any particular existing culture. For simplicity's sake, though, the Haradric names and a handful of Haradric words are translated into Arabic by the same magic that translates Westron into English.
*The mountain range on the southern border of Mordor. Literally Sindarin for "outer fence" (from the Encyclopedia of Arda)
**He has the Black Breath. Since we know that Mordor was at times defended by armies of men, it is reasonable to assume the Nazgûl have ways of shielding their allies from the malady, thus the father's conception that it afflicts only those who trespass in Mordor.