Banjoverse: The Full Epic
Playlist Navigation Bar
Son of Harad: 2. Child-spies
A tall boy walked along this dune. He had wrapped himself in many robes. The nights were cold in the desert. Almost freezing. His boots sank into the sand, but his feet were too cold in the sandals. He walked with a noble gait, as if he was much older and richer than he really was. His robes were patched and re-patched. Poor items kept in perfect condition. His physique was that of a strong, if poorly fed, fifteen-year-old. Still with the stringiness of youth, but quickly swelling into manhood. Hard, lithe, brown muscles.
The boy walked down the slope of the dune towards the camp’s edge. In the distance, he could see tents, tents, tents everywhere. Sleeping mûmakil mountains. Horses snorting as they dreamed. The Haradrim army camp stretched out towards the horizon.
The boy approached the first tent - the horse's tent. He saw his stallion tethered outside. Sleek and beautiful in the flickering torchlight. The boy checked the saddlebags. Yes, everything was here. Everything was packed up, ready to leave. He ran his hand over the horse's neck, marveling at its texture. And in that silence, in that sleeping darkness, the boy stared at his own hand. It was dark, tanned, almost black. Melting into the stallion’s dark color.
He turned his hand over. His palm glowed pink against the darkness now. But he hated those pale patches of skin. His palms, the soles of his feet. He preferred the tanned skin. The skin that showed him as he truly was: a Haradrim. Not a half-pale.
He bent close to the horse, smelled it. Strength's perfume. The odor of speed and force.
There was some movement behind him. The boy turned. A girl stood before him. She was also wrapped in heavy, quilted robes, shivering. Her dark hair fell in curls about her shoulders. As soon as he recognized her, he stepped forward and they embraced.
"Qudamah, please..." she whispered into his shoulder.
"Hush," he soothed. "We shall see each other again in a few months. It is not that long."
"It is too long."
"Yes, it is too long. But it is not that long."
"Will you miss me?"
They kissed. Softly, enough to press lips against lips and feel the other's breath on each tongue. He stepped back, lifted her arms from around his shoulders.
"I must go see the King now," he said.
She nodded, understanding. Yet, before he turned away, she inhaled quickly.
"Your eyes are nearly black tonight," she blurted out.
And he smiled. For she had known to comfort him in his point of weakness, his perceived frailty. For she knew that the color of his eyes was a torment to him. The color. It was the source of all his infamy and scorn amidst the Haradrim army. And although she secretly loved that color, cherished it, she knew he hated it and wished only for brown-black.
His eyes were pale. Sometimes green, sometimes blue. Depending on what he wore, or what time of day it was. Very pale, very light. So that they contrasted fiercely with his inky-black hair, his deep brown skin, his dark, heavy eyebrows.
They smiled at each other for several moments and before turning, he whispered softly: "I will see you again, my love. Do not forget me."
A few tears slipped from her eyes, but he did not comfort her. He walked away from the horse's tent, away from the girl, away from all of it, and towards the center of the camp. Here, the dunes had been scraped down to even ground. Everyone slept. A few guards paced around the larger tents – the generals’ and princes’ private tents. In the center of camp, two mûmakil were resting, forefeet pulled forward, trunks laid wide. At the ends of the trunks, a single guard stood. Plumed, spiked, silent. The guard nodded as Qudamah approached.
"He is waiting," the guard reproached.
Qudamah did not answer. He strode past the guard, past the snoring mûmakil, towards the largest tent of all: the King's tent. It was alight with inner fires. He strode to the tent's opening, nodded to the two sentries. They pulled back the flaps, and he entered.
At first, he was dazzled by the sights and smells. Bright fires blinded him, so that, unknowingly, his pupils shrank to reveal the pale irises. The ground was covered with ornately designed carpets, all laying over each other in scattered chaos. Slaves, women and children, slept against these carpets, or sat up and whispered. Guards were posted at every opening. And there, in the center of it all, the throne. Curved mûmak ivory, jeweled, shackled with gold. Plumes of the jungle birds, feathery against the dangling bracelets of spiked teeth.
The King was tall. That was the first thing Qudamah noticed. But not taller than he, for, although Qudamah was but fifteen, he matched any man in height. The King was lighter, as well. While Qudamah's skin was the deep brown of a Beshabari peasant, this King was Harmattan gold. He had a shaved head, shaved chin, bare torso, a simple skirt to sleep in. He wore jewelry of teeth, every beast's teeth, hanging against his chest. And he was perhaps fifty.
At the moment, two slave-women were oiling his arms. Yet, as he saw Qudamah approach, he clucked his tongue and the women hastened away. Qudamah knelt upon the ground, pushed his arms forward, and touched the carpet with his brow.
He waited in that position.
"So this is the famous Half-Pale?"
Qudamah did not reply. He heard the King stand from his throne.
"You are very dark."
Footsteps. Qudamah inhaled the dust on the carpet.
Qudamah straightened, sat back on his heels. He stared forward, and felt the King's eyes on him.
"Yes, I see. Your eyes."
Inadvertently, Qudamah blinked.
"What is your name?"
"Qudamah, my King."
"Ah, yes. I remember now. Qudamah the Mongrel."
How Qudamah hated that epithet! Had he the ability, he would tear the word! Tear it into a thousand tiny shreds and let them blow away into the sea! Never, ever to be said again!
But he hid his fierce anger behind a blank stare. They always said to respect the King, and especially this one, for this was the Greatest King of all. This broad-chested, glistening figure was King Sadaqat, who had united all the Haradrim realms under a common banner. Under the banner of the Black Serpent against a crimson background. Under the powerful rule of Harmattan.
And so Qudamah said nothing, but only waited.
There was some movement behind him, and King Sadaqat looked up. Another young man arrived, twenty-years-old, dark and handsome. He knelt beside Qudamah, stretched himself forward and touched the carpet with his brow.
"My King," the other boy murmured in respect. His voice was muffled by his shoulders.
"Ah! And this is my other young spy: Sepya?" King Sadaqat beamed. "Arise. Both of you."
The two boys stood. They were nearly equal in height, and Qudamah saw, out of the corner of his eye, that this other boy - this Sepya - had curled black hair and light-tanned skin. A long, slim face with a sloped nose. This was an Aajej man.
King Sadaqat studied them now, pacing in front of each one and looking them up and down. He tested Qudamah's biceps, slapped Sepya on the shoulder, muttered and mumbled to himself. As he neared, Qudamah smelled the harsh odor of oils, perfumes and the taryâk drug.
After evaluating them, Sadaqat stepped back, crossed his arms.
"Well, then," he began. "You are to be the last two? My child-spies to work in the very capital of the enemy’s realm? Is this true?"
Qudamah remained silent, though Sepya nodded. "Yes, my King."
"Sepya, your father is the Prince of Aajej, this is true?"
"Yes, my King."
"Do you have brothers?"
"Yes, my King. Five brothers. I am the sixth."
"Ah, the spoiled one. The little one."
Sadaqat chuckled, and Qudamah noted Sepya also smiled. Yet the thick smoke in the tent, with its syrupy perfume, was making Qudamah light-headed. He swallowed, kept his face expressionless, his eyes staring straight ahead.
"Sepya, we shall send you as a gift to Gondor's court," Sadaqat continued. "You shall go the white man's city to study his culture, his traditions, his people. That is your mission, and that is not a lie. However, you have also your secret goal."
He snapped his fingers. A child-slave hurried forth, carrying something with him. As he passed by Qudamah's field of vision, Qudamah saw that the young boy was carrying a long, thin vial resting against a silk pillow. The child-slave held up the pillow, and Sadaqat took from it the vial. He then stepped towards Sepya.
"Drawn from the fangs of our most vicious serpent, the Black Serpent of Harmattan," Sadaqat said. "Take this poison, young Sepya, and go to the White City. Kill a King for me, and I shall make you the Prince of Aajej and all its surrounding realms."
"I will, my King." Sepya bowed his head, cupped his hands before him.
Sadaqat dropped the vial into Sepya's open palms, and the boy closed them greedily. Qudamah could not help but steal a glance, and the two boys met eyes briefly.
The King turned towards Qudamah.
"And now, the Half-Pale," Sadaqat boomed. Qudamah thought he saw Sepya smile. But Qudamah averted his gaze and stared at a corner of the ivory throne.
Sadaqat approached. "You are of pious Beshabar, no?”
“Yes, my King.”
“Yes, my King.”
Qudamah hesitated for a fraction of a second. His chest tightened, but he fought back the emotion.
“Dead, my King.”
“And your father?” Sadaqat already knew the answer to this question. Everyone knew. For it explained Qudamah’s eyes. But he asked nonetheless.
“He was a pale man of North. He left us…” Qudamah fought against the emotion, he fought, but he could not hide the anger shivering through his voice. The rage that they should humiliate him so. “He left us, eight years ago. My King.”
“Ah,” Sadaqat breathed, smiling. “And you go to seek him out?”
“Yes, my King.”
Suddenly, King Sadaqat stepped forward and, with one large hand, gripped Qudamah’s jaw. He jerked him around, so that Qudamah faced Sepya. And, as the King did this, Qudamah felt a sudden flash – a memory – of his father, gripping his jaw and jerking his head around in this exact same manner.
“See, young Sepya? See his eyes?” Sadaqat demanded.
“Yes, my King,” Sepya said. A malicious sneer played at his lips.
Qudamah’s blood boiled. Yet he maintained, as always, the blank expression, the dumb look of a peasant, even as Sadaqat’s fingernails dug into his cheeks, even as Sepya leered, even as the smoke blinded and the perfume choked. Sadaqat gave him a rough shake and released his grip.
“What was your father’s name?” Sadaqat asked.
“Amir, my King.”
“Amir… That is a Haradrim name. Know you his true name? His Northern name?”
“No, my King.”
“And how then will you seek him out?” Sadaqat cocked his head. His tone patronized.
“I…” Qudamah swallowed, kept his voice steady. “My mother once received a message from him, a few years after he left, from Dashmir-of-Ghibli. I wish to go to the city. Perhaps there will be rumors of his travels.”
“Rumors!” Sadaqat suddenly exclaimed. “Rumors! That we men should be prey to such flighty talk!” He laughed, and Qudamah saw a gold tooth in the smile. “Very well, young Qudamah. I expect your journey will take several months. But, if this man is from the Northern realms of Gondor or Rohan, then your search may prove useful for us all. We shall meet in the White City, before Gâve Narjašn.”
The King snapped his fingers. The same child-slave appeared, this time carrying a short, curved scabbard. As Sadaqat picked up this scabbard, running his long fingers over it as one does a lover, he smiled again. Qudamah waited.
“Qudamah, you are the symbol of our War,” he whispered, staring at the scabbard. “You are a mongrel, the child of a rape – as the Northern man has raped our lands, stolen our people. And there are more like you, mongrels and half-pales, with your weak blood and light colors. Too many. The Northern barbarians are diluting our people…
“Know you what they call me? I am Sadaqat King, He Who United Harad. All the realms, all of them. I swept my arms out and gathered them under the Single Banner. My banner. The Black Serpent of Harmattan. And every Harad realm will fight under this banner, to reclaim its lands – to reclaim its honor,” the King looked at Qudamah as he added, “to reclaim its sons.
“Every realm. The brave men of Aajej…” Sepya smiled, “the fishermen and sailors of Imbat… the black men of Beshabar… the mûmakil tamers from Ghibli… all of them, every one, under the Single Banner, under Harmattan, the greatest realm of all.”
As he spoke each name, he let its sound curl around his tongue and rumble through his teeth. Pride. He was proud of all the Haradrim kingdoms, but most of all, he was proud of Harmattan. The warrior realm. The realm of the rich, the military. The largest realm in all of Harad, as it had been for thousands of years.
Qudamah could not help but feel great hate for this man, this King, his realm. Yet he knew his duty, and he knew his honor, so he allowed himself to be patronized and degraded. All he needed was the knife and the King’s approval, and then he could go forth to find his father. For that was, above all, what he desired.
“I give you the Blade of Sadaqat,” the King said. “It is worthy of killing only royalty. Yet I give it to you, young Qudamah, young mongrel, because you must strike the first blow against the White Men. For you are the product of their past conquests, and you will be the symbol of our new victory. When the armies arrive in the White City – I expect we shall arrive nigh the first day of Gâve Narjašn – you two will return to us. Either as champions of the Haradrim, or dead. Do you understand?”
Both boys bowed low. Qudamah raised his hands, cupping them. And he felt the leather, the smooth gold, the clean jewels against his hand. The Blade of Sadaqat was his. It was so light.
As both boys bowed, Sadaqat barked an order. Three slaves appeared, carrying with them two hookahs.
“As you know,” Sadaqat said as the slaves readied each water-pipe. The pipe was screwed into place. A sizzling coal was placed on top. Cool water gurgled in its base. “As you know, any young soldier is initiated with taryâk. For our army is the mightiest – and it grows mightier with each generation – and we do not accept the weak. If your body cannot withstand the pleasures of the drug, it will never survive a battle.”
As is custom, the boys sat, cross-legged. The hookahs were prepared. Once the drug was placed in the container below the coal, a slave handed Sadaqat each pipe. The King took first the pipe intended for Sepya. He smoked. Qudamah listened to the boiling noise the water made as the King inhaled. Already, the smell of the drug was making his eyes water. But he braced himself. Every soldier passed Initiation, else they were not a true soldier. He waited. The King smiled, nodded, handed the pipe to Sepya. He then took Qudamah’s pipe and sucked. The water gurgled. The King nodded again, giving his approval, and handed the pipe to Qudamah. Sadaqat then exhaled slow – a thick, white cloud of smoke.
Both boys waited now. Qudamah held the pipe in one hand. It had a cloth handle. Below that, the ribbed tube snaked to the hookah itself. Qudamah stared at the sizzling coal. He waited. His heart was beating loud. Nervous. He could feel the sweat on his other hand as it rested against his thigh.
Finally, the King raised his arms and uttered the traditional declaration: “Harad, O Harad! Fight for the jeweled land! Welcome, brothers!”
And with that, the boys smoked. Qudamah took a long pull from his pipe, knowing that anything less would be considered weakness. He felt the acid taste of the drug cling to his teeth and tongue, felt the smoke burn his throat. And the effects were immediate…
His limbs faded…
His vision blurred…
His back, slamming against the carpet…
Mother and father. Mother, so dark, she is dark like me. With curly black hair, like me. With heavy eyebrows, like me. With dark-tanned skin, like me. With pale palms, like me. She laughs.
And father? Father? Father is light, he turns red in the sun. His hair is pale sand-colored. It darkens when it is wet. His eyes, like mine. Sky-color, sea-color eyes. And very heavy-hooded. Just thin slits. How can he see from those eyes? Nearly hidden under bags. And his smile, like mine. And all the scars. My father is an ancient warrior.
Mother and father. Perfection. In love. Sadaqat is wrong. The King is wrong. Not rape, never rape, they are in love. And I will kill who says it is not true.
The last few moments. Mother is very ill. Sitting next to her, the medicine man says it is finished. The last few moments. Tears blurring everything, I cannot see, but I want to see her, in these last few moments, and so I wipe the tears away, quickly, frantically. Squeezing her hand, leaning close. She whispers, whispering breaths against my cheek, I cannot hear.
“What is it? Oma? What is it?”
Burning tears… Burning hot against my cheeks. I cannot hear. Please, please, please, don’t let this happen. She is very thin, very thin. Thin like me. But she is ill, she needs food, more than I do. She needs medicine. Is there no medicine?
“What is it, Oma? Please!”
And finally, I can hear, just a wheezing whisper as the life squeezes away from us and she dies:
“My little Qudamah, my beautiful boy. Handsome… brave and tall. Just like your Bapu.”
Bapu! Burning anger… I squeeze fiercely, holding onto her hand, but she is already drifting away with the wind. Tears and screams and sobs and begging someone to help, but it is too late, too late. Bony thin wrists, crying into them, begging. Mother!
Sucked out, I am sucked away, my limbs are sucked away and I know then: she spoke of Bapu. Father. Never Bapu, that is the loving name of youth. No. I will find this lost father. Burning anger, itching palms. I will go North, to his lands, and find him there, and and and…
And I would tear out my eyes, pierce them out to blind me, for they are his eyes – not mine.
Playlist Navigation Bar