A/N: Well, this is it. Big thanks to everyone who has followed and reviewed this story so far—your encouragement has meant a lot to me. Special thanks go, as always, to Cairistiona. I'm not exaggerating when I say that were it not for her, this story would still be in pieces, collecting electronic dust on my hard drive. She's been an awesome beta and sounding board and the best cheerleader I could ask for.
I hope you enjoy.
I stand still as a statue, with the tip of the sword just inches above the ground. I no longer try to duck my head, but watch the king steadily, waiting for some cue. He paces around me in a slow circle. My breath sounds harsh and impossibly loud in the sudden silence. The king's footsteps all but echo.
"Why have you come here," he says at last, "Hakim, son of Azzam?" His tone is formal. It is strange to hear him speak Haradric so well. Dimly, I take note of a gray-robed scholar who stands before the lords and repeats his question in Westron.
"To beg your mercy for my son, Ayman," I respond as steadily as I can, "Who was captured in battle upon the Pelennor Fields, three months past."
"What is your trade, son of Azzam?" He asks in a voice that carries, though few besides my countrymen and the translator can now understand him.
"I herd goats, my lord, in the northern Haradwaith."
"And have you, yourself borne arms against Gondor or her allies?"
"No, my lord."
"And have you profited from the spoils of war?"
I meet his gaze, though my mouth has gone dry. "Only once. Malik."
It's a strange word—malik. In most contexts, it translates best as "master"—an honorific that does more to drive home the lowness of the speaker than the high status of the one addressed. But, in another context—the one I call upon now—it comes to mean something quite different. Spoken with the proper inflection and a certain syntax, it is turned around again and denotes only the righteousness and grandeur of the one being addressed.
Used as I use it now, it means "king."
He steps to within a pace of me. I glimpse once more that elusive flicker of reassurance in his eyes. Then he glances at the purse at my belt, and I fumble to hand it to him. Turning from me, he opens the purse and pulls out a necklace of my wife's, made of slightly tarnished silver. "Time was," he says dryly, "A man's life had more value in Harad."
I bow my head once more. "I am but a poor man, my lord. I offer such wealth as I have at hand."
He drops the necklace back into the pouch. "And if I told you that more was required?" His voice is still measured. Even. Controlled.
"I would endeavor to give it, if it were in my power."
"And if I demanded your lands in the Haradwaith as recompense?"
"I would give them, in exchange for my son's freedom."
He suddenly turns and draws his sword in one smooth motion, halting with the tip just inches from my neck. A muffled gasp runs through the throne room, but I stand stock still. "And if I demanded instead your very life?"
I stare into his steady eyes, and at last I think I understand the purpose of the sword in my hands. Slowly, I drop to one knee. The tip of his sword follows me, tracking my movements smoothly and steadily. I bow my head, lifting the sword with both hands. If the tales he's told me are true, this is the posture a Man of Gondor adopts when he swears an oath of fealty. "It is yours, Malik, to do with as you will."
His face remains inscrutable, but slowly, he sheaths his own sword. Then, he lifts the blade from my hands and sheaths that one as well. Bending slightly, he clasps my shoulder and gives it a squeeze that I interpret as reassurance. "Rise," he murmurs softly, in Westron.
As I obey, he turns from me and sweeps across the room to address his advisors, in a voice meant for all. "Many years ago, I walked the sands of Harad, first by chance and then by choice. I wished to learn of its people and discover how the Enemy held them in thrall." He takes a few pacing steps. "And I did. I found that among his greatest weapons was this," he held out his old sword for all to see, "Their fear of the Gondorim—of our supposed savagery and lack of mercy. Yes, even as some of our people speak of the Easterlings in fear, so do they speak of us."
He props the sword on a stone seat that stands at the base of the throne.
"The other great weapon was this," he lifts my simple, pathetically empty purse, "A form of economic bondage so subtle few realized he was the source. Monetary value placed on human lives—ours, theirs, their children's. A source of greed for a few, simple necessity for most."
He walks along the line of nobles, meeting each man's gaze as if they are soldiers and he is marshaling them for a charge. "I've heard it said that we can never have peace with the Haradrim—that they are too different, that our grievances run too deep. But, the Harad I know is full of men and women like the man you just saw—people who love their families. People who desire their own land, free of the shadow's taint." He paused. "That is why I propose that we free the Men of Harad who are now our prisoners. No, not that we ransom them. Not that we sell back their lives for coin, and in so doing place their families more firmly in their overlords' thrall. That we free them. And in so doing, weaken their chains and take the first steps towards peace."
A few of the advisors are now nodding along, but most seem vaguely troubled, and suspicion is hardening into anger on more than one face. Elessar pauses before the most open of the detractors, a man younger than most with broad shoulders and a face set in hard lines. "You, disagree, Lord Angbor."
The lord inclines his head slightly. "I will do as my king commands." His voice is stiff.
"Then, your king commands that you share your opinion, that we all may benefit from your insight."
The other man hesitates. His frown deepens still further. "You speak of a chained people," he says at last, "But when the Haradrim broke upon Lamedon, we saw something entirely different. Repairing the devastation they wrought at Linhir will be the work of years."
"Indeed." The ring of command has slipped from the king's voice and he now sounds rather like a patient schoolmaster. "And can we accomplish that work while prolonging a war that, with Sauron's demise, has now become senseless?"
Angbor does not respond. Forgotten for the moment, I study the lord's face and pick out several old scars. He strikes me as the sort of man for whom battle is its own end. I have seen his type among my own people, though I've never understood it. His respect for the king is obvious, though. He seems to be mulling over Elessar's question.
The man to his left is less enamored. An older, slightly bent man, his lips are pursed tight under a neat, gray beard and he mutters something that sounds suspiciously like "Tut!"
I think I see Elessar's shoulders tighten infinitesimally. But, perhaps I imagined it. "You have something to add, Lord Mundron?"
The older lord offers a bow that strikes me as somewhat exaggerated. "A wise king is a merciful king," he intones, "But, I fear your kindness will do little to move the hearts of the Haradrim. They have ever courted their own destruction, for they are a stubborn people, and slow to change their ways."
"Yes, how terrible that must be for them," Elessar says lightly. I wonder, suddenly and wildly, whether anyone else in the chamber knows him well enough to detect the note of dry humor underlying those words. "Nonetheless," he continues, "Change is upon us and a choice now lies before Gondor. What shall we make of these days of peace? We can spend our strength nurturing old grievances and see our land crumble further. But, if we take a chance at reconciliation—if we take a chance on Harad—then we may see blessings we have not yet imagined."
He stands before the nobles, making eye contact once more. "Lords. Council members. By the law of Gondor, I do not need your consent to this. But, I wish it, nonetheless. What say you?"
He stops before the youngest of the council members—the one who holds a white rod and wears a thoughtful expression.
"The Steward of Gondor says 'aye.'"
The man next to him is nodding slightly, looking impressed, the suspicion all but gone from his eyes.
"The Prince of Dol Amroth says 'aye.'"
"The Lord of Lebennin says 'aye.'"
"The Lord of Lossarnach says 'aye.'"
On and on down the line until Elessar pauses before Angbor. I can see just a sliver of his face in profile—enough to see that it is calm and expectant. Angbor's face is troubled. He glances down, then back up, meeting the king's gaze. Then he relaxes and nods, the ghost of a smile playing over his hard lips. "The Lord of Lamedon says 'aye.'"
Now, there's no one left but Mundron. Elessar fixes this last councilor with his gaze, and I sense a battle of wills commencing—one poor Mundron has little hope of winning. The older man's jaw works. His face twitches. At last, he speaks, almost sulkily. "The Lord of Anfalas says 'aye.'"
It is over. Not one council member has opposed the king's mercy.
My fellows shoot me covert looks, hoping for a translation, but I shake my head. I'll explain once I'm certain that this is not just a dream.
Once the last lord has spoken his approval, Elessar turns without a word and strides back to stand before me. As he drops the purse back into my disbelieving hands, his eyes hold a glint of triumph.
As we file out of the throne room, I am stopped by a hand on my elbow. I turn and find myself looking into the eyes of the man who called himself the Steward of Gondor. "The King requests a moment of your time," he says softly, "In private."
I bow. "Of course, my lord."
The Steward leads me through a side corridor, and indicates a heavy, wooden door with a nod. I thank him, and push the door open, not quite sure who I will meet on the other side.
The chamber beyond is smaller than I expected. It seems to be a study of sorts. Small trestle tables are stacked with books and a desk littered with parchment is pressed against one wall. Paintings and tapestries line the walls, depicting scenes from Gondor's history and its lore. One painting sits propped against the wall rather than hanging with the rest, as if it were a recent addition that no one has yet found time to hang. I think I recognize the scene: an elven maiden and her human lover meeting in a starlit grove. An image from one of Dakheel's favorite stories.
He sits in a high-backed chair, staring at this painting as though lost in thought. I close the door behind me and bow deeply. "What do you wish of me, malik?" I ask in Haradric.
He meets my gaze easily. In private, far from the prying eyes of those who would call him a legend, his face is less stern. "Sit with me a while, Hakim. But do not address me so. I fear 'malik' is one word I will never grow to love."
So, I lower myself slowly to sit in an identical chair. "Should I then call you 'sire'?" I ask, switching to Westron, "Or 'majesty'? It is nigh impossible to think of you only as Dakheel amid . . ." I wave a hand to indicate our surroundings, "all this."
He smiles and shakes his head. "It was never 'only' Dakheel. That was always just one name among many . . . but mine nonetheless."
I'm not sure what to make of that statement except that he remains skilled at dodging the question.
A tea service sits on a low table between us. With a wave of his hand, he offers me a cup. I sip it slowly to give myself something to do while I study him. Dakheel—it is easier to think of him as such away from the terrible grandeur of the throne room—seems strangely untouched by the years. But for his finery and lavish appointments, he could have been propped on a hay bale next to me, sharing a plate of beans. His eyes, though, are deeper. Sadder, perhaps, but wiser too.
"Ayman has your look," he says suddenly, "I noticed it even as he laid down arms, but did not think to inquire further until after my coronation."
I nod. Somehow, I'm not surprised that they crossed paths amid a field with tens of thousands of soldiers. It's no more impossible than anything else I've heard this day. "Thank you for sparing him."
He looks away. "I am sorry I had to put you through all that." He studies his own teacup.
"Did it help you free my son?"
"I believe it did."
"Then I need no explanation."
"I need to give one, all the same." He studies his own teacup. "The council . . . well, you saw them. Peace seems to be the only thing Lord Angbor actually fears, and Mundron is not the only one still driven by old grievances. For all their lives and all the memory of their fathers, Gondor's enemies have stayed more or less the same. Mordor. Khand. Rhûn. Harad. If we are to have peace, I will need their help in crafting treaties and maintaining them. But, first I needed them to commit fully to the idea of a peaceful Harad. I needed them to see the humanity in her people." He meets my gaze. "Do you think relations between our peoples will change?"
I blink. Is he asking me for foreign policy advice? I take a moment to collect my thoughts. "Change, as you said, is upon us already," I say at last, "The only question is how and to what end."
He nods, his face a bit rueful. "I will remain in negotiations with the nobles who have come. Perhaps we will pound out a treaty. Perhaps I'll be tempted to use their heads as battering rams . . . but that's a risk we all must take."
That startles a laugh out of me. For a moment, I hesitate to laugh in the presence of a king . . . but, he's been a king all along, hasn't he? And it's never stopped me before.
He smiles, and stands with a touch of regret. I hurry to follow suit. "They are waiting for me now, in fact. Ayman is being held in a camp just outside the city. He has suffered neither wound nor ailment. The chamberlain can direct you there, and the guards know to expect you. But, I hope you will both join me tonight for a meal. It would be good to catch up, as old friends."
I smile. "I would like that." Dimly, I wonder when I lost my fear of Elessar. For, he is the king, still; I can see a quiet gravitas in his bearing and cannot quite forget how his eyes burned as he held his sword to my throat. But, he is my friend, too, and perhaps a thousand other things besides.
"There is one more thing." My sword—his sword—has sat unnoticed, propped under a window. He lifts it now and offers it to me.
I hesitate. "It is yours."
He presses it into my hands. "It was a gift for the days of peace. I hope you will wear it, now that those days are nearly upon us." And then he turns and slips out the door, light as a spirit in all the regalia of a king.
A/N: As this tale comes to a close, I'd like to thank all my readers and especially reviewers one more time. You guys have inspired me and kept me writing, revising, and editing long after a sane person would have stopped. I'd love to hear your feedback on this final part, be it positive, negative or anything in between.
A few words on the promised sequel: I am working on a sequel to this tale which will provide more detail about Aragorn's travels in Harad. There are three planned chapters, each of which will be narrated by a different original character and each of which will concern a different setting. It's about half-finished, but because I have a terrible track record with WIPs, I'll be waiting to post until it's completely written (probably in a week or two). I may also revisit these characters in other fics. The tentative title is "Strangers." It will be a very different fic in tone and content, but I hope you will enjoy it all the same.