Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Son of Harad: 4. News in Ghibli
The guards and other men smiled and beckoned them whispered farewells as the two boys dug their heels in and sent the horses running, leaving the sleeping camp behind.
And so they galloped, on and on, through the night. Kicking up sand, sometimes calling to each other, racing, or sometimes simply cantering along in silence. Qudamah shivered from the cold, but he hid his tremors from Sepya, who was well-wrapped in his embroidered cloak. On and on, with the moon above them, and the stars blazing, and the dunes, rolling blue, on and on, endless monotony. North. To the city of Dashmir-of-Ghibli, and then continuing northwest to the Great Meeting of Roads - where Sepya would take the North Road for another few weeks until it led him straight into South Gondor lands.
And Qudamah? He would wait and see where his road led him. His only obligation was to be in the White City come the next Bull’s Feast.
Qudamah spent much of the first night thinking of the girl he had left behind, waiting for the taryâk images to fade. The girl was his age, and she had traveled with the army since Beshabar. They had purchased her and a number of other women on the borders of Ghibli, at one of the last tribal outposts before the lands became nothing but harsh desert. For it was not possible to buy such women on Beshabari lands.
She had been the youngest of the group. And Qudamah had done everything he could to limit the traffic on men into her tent, to bribe the other women to take more and leave her to him, to make her promise to wait for him. And in the weeks of travel, she had promised - she had even said she loved him, once - and now, as he trotted along the crest of a dune, he wondered if she had really meant it. Would she wait for him? He hoped so. He could still feel the warmth of her lips against his, and the feel of her hair through his fingers...
Riding ahead was Sepya. Back straight, shoulders squared, chin held high. His every movement, his every glance, everything betrayed his noble birth. When they spoke during their first night riding, Qudamah found himself at once envying and hating his fellow spy. Curled black hair, thin eyes. A sharp smile. Sepya was one of those people whose smile seemed inherently wicked - an ugly smile - one of those few people who were more appealing when they frowned.
They did not talk much that first evening. Sepya spoke a little of his brothers, of his city, of his realm. He talked about the Aajej horses. Qudamah said nothing.
They rode through the night and then into morning. Sometime before noon, they found a small oasis. Just a patch of swaying trees, a watering hole. Some wild hump-backed khemil were loping along, dipping their heads to drink, sitting in the shade with legs folded underneath them. The two young men rode their horses, who were by now overworked and fatigued, to the patch of shady ground.
“We shall spend the shade-less hour here,” Sepya announced. He had dismounted, and was leading his horse by the reins towards the watering hole. “Have you any food?”
Qudamah rode his horse at a slow pace, following Sepya. He adjusted his headdress with one hand to shield his eyes a little. “Yes, I have some food.”
Sepya snorted. Walking forward, without looking back, he asked, “Well, what – do – you – have?”
“I am not sharing,” Qudamah said simply.
Sepya sighed theatrically and shook his head, laughing. Once his chuckles faded, he said, “My dear mongrel, I don’t want your food. I was just making conversation.” Another ugly smile.
Qudamah frowned. They made their way to the watering hole, and there he dismounted. After removing the saddlebags and packs – Qudamah cringed, already waiting for Sepya to order him to unload all their bags, though the Aajej man did not – they went to sit under a patch of clumped trees. The thick, drooping leaves oozed milky juice, and Sepya pulled one of these leaves from the branch overhead. He tore it open, sucked at the tear. Qudamah had taken a seat at the base, and he watched him from the shade.
“Here,” Sepya said and stretched out the piece of torn leaf. Qudamah eyed him warily. “Try it. It’s good.”
Reluctantly, Qudamah took the leaf and, watching Sepya, mimicked the older boy. He sucked at the ripped opening, where the two layers of green opened up to an oozing milk. It tasted sweet, but not overly so. The milk was cool on the lower part of the leaf, where it had drooped down and had been shaded by the taller branches, and it was warmer on the sun-struck side.
Sepya came into the shade, sat by his own packs. He leaned back and rested his head against the saddle. The two horses were nickering now, trotting around the pool of water, nipping at the trees. Qudamah watched his horse’s black sheen of sunlight, glistening. From the other side of the pool, a seated khemil was chewing something as it stared at them.
“What is your horse’s name?” Sepya asked.
Qudamah dropped his eyes, picked at the leaf. “Saad.”
“Oh, like ‘good luck’?”
They sat in silence for a few moments. Sepya reached over, dragged out the water-skin in his pack. After popping out the cap and taking a lengthy swallow, he gave a satisfied sigh and laid his hands over his stomach. Qudamah could feel the older boy’s eyes on him.
“Do you speak the Northern languages?”
“So do I,” Sepya said, stretching his arms. “My father knows a man who used to live in the port city, Dol Amroth. Do you know Dol Amroth?”
Qudamah felt his face heat. “No.”
“Well, did your father ever speak of these things? I thought you said he was from Gondor.”
“Yes, well…” Qudamah swallowed, stared at the leaf in his hands. “My mother said he was from Gondor. But he never told me of it.”
Sepya made a neutral sound. Qudamah was beginning to feel hungry, but he would not eat until the other boy ate.
“Can you read?”
At this, Sepya made a surprised sound, but said nothing.
Finally, after a half-hour of lounging around, Sepya reached around and began to rifle through his pack for food. Seeing this, Qudamah waited a few more minutes – until his stomach began to feel hollow as he watched Sepya eat his meat – and then he too pulled out the food from his pack. His captain, a southern Beshabari man with a scar running down the side of his face, had given him scarce provisions for the trip – saying that it was more than enough for a scrawny boy like yourself. And so Qudamah brought out the stale flat bread, stuffed it with some dried meat, and ate.
Once finished eating, they decided to sleep through the afternoon and continue in the evening. They hid the packs in the undergrowth and bushes by the trees. They laid their short, curved swords beside them. Qudamah unrolled his blanket on the cool sand, went to Saad with some food from his pack, and then returned to the shady patch and laid down. Sepya did the same.
Qudamah did not know how long he laid there, staring up through the canopy of green, waiting for Sepya to fall asleep. But only once the other boy was asleep did he turn to his other side, staring down at the sheathed Blade of Sadaqat, and fell asleep.
The days passed.
“I’ve heard – tell me if this is true, Qudamah – I’ve heard the men of Beshabar pray five hours a day. Surely that is not possible.”
“We do during the Holy Month.”
“Ha! That is madness.”
“Well… is it true the nobles of Aajej eat and drink until they retch?”
“Yes, that’s true. But once we have retched, we sit down and begin again.”
They reached Dashmir-of-Ghibli on the seventh day of travel since leaving the Haradrim camp. The land became flatter and more solid as they reached the city – with the dunes eventually evening out into a dry-cracked plain. It was said that Dashmir-of-Ghibli, the capital of Ghibli, had been founded thousands of years ago on an enormous oasis. Since then the idyllic oasis had disappeared, leaving only the dark brown, dusty ground and a tenth of the trees, but it was nonetheless a welcome sight after so long in dry desert.
As they approached from the southeast, they caught site of the mûmakil rings to the south of the city walls. Qudamah could just see the beasts lumbering back and forth – shadows on the horizon. And Sepya pointed out the gates – two marble mûmakil, raised back on their hind feet, forefeet pulled forward and touching. Elaborate arches and domes and the great mass of flat-roofed houses.
They entered Dashmir from this South Gate, passing the great walls. Qudamah looked up: there – glinting further up the road – he saw the great domes of the Dashmir Palace – blinding gold in the sun. And the wide lane before them was crowded with vendors at their stands and burly masons and robed warriors from the palace and those long-bearded tribal men who lived in the desert outskirts. Qudamah and Sepya cantered down this main road, coughing in the constant clouds of dust, the tang of sweat, milling bodies, and then – after a corner in the road – they found a public stable.
They left their horses there. Sepya paid for both of them, and Qudamah pulled from his packs his blade and his purse. He left the rest.
Outside, in the glaring sun, Sepya turned, smiled:
“Well, my young mongrel? I am to the nearest smoking room and inn. And you?”
“I… I shall go see what rumors there are of my father’s travels.”
Sepya laughed. “Saad to you indeed! Have you any money for the inns?”
“I do,” Qudamah frowned.
“Very well. Then I to my bed and you to yours. And we shall meet again here on the morrow.”
“I would rather not.”
Oromë shakes his head.
“Come earth or fire, I shall ne’er venture down there.
‘Tis too dry.”
Yavanna: “Mmm hmm hmm. Me neither. No fruit.”
Ulmo: “No water.”
Vána: “No flowers.”
Tulkas: “I can – ”
Námo interrupts: “ – go.”
Manwë, looking sharply at both: “You have been there enough, I feel.
Too true, truly you, Mandos, are the only one who can stand such heat.”
“Death thrives in all places.”
“Very well. Go.”
Námo smiles, nods,
wraps in on himself
ragged tatters of ghostly-white smoke,
stretching away from him,
dissolving dissolving dissolving
shrinking down, growing meat and bones and flesh
until there is a sucking in
sounding like an inhaled “ffffffffft!”
purified deep, glistening and then veiled by a dark mask.
And so Námo becomes a child,
playing in the squares of Dashmir.
The sun blazed high in the afternoon sky. Qudamah was sweating. He had arrived to a meeting of the main city roads, and he could see the paved walkway which sloped up to the Dashmir Palace from this small square. He had searched for hours. Yet every tavern keeper, every brothel owner, every stable-hand had told him the same thing: that they knew a dozen Amirs, and not one of them was pale. One man had told Qudamah that he had heard of a Northern man – a great story-teller – but that he had forgotten the name, and where he had heard of him. Go see Jijit the Moneylender, he might know. And so Qudamah had gone to see this Jijit the Moneylender, a small, wrinkly old man from Imbat, who had been half-deaf and useless.
Rumors! That we men should be prey to such flighty talk! The King’s words echoed now – as Qudamah found himself, burning in the sun and exhausted, still soiled from the desert and with empty stomach, standing in the road without a single sign as to where to go. The King had been right – Qudamah was no more likely to find his father as he was to ever see his mother again. Shut up, there is no use in thinking like that. Why do you always think of Oma? He shook his head, scowled. Squinting in the sun.
There were some children playing in the square, right as the dirt road became paved with cobblestones, and began to slope up to the palace. Frowning, Qudamah began to walk past the children, his limbs heavy, ready to find the first, cheap inn to sleep in for the afternoon. Yet one of the children, a young boy with a mop of glistening black hair, pulled away from the group, ran to meet him.
“Wait!” the boy cried.
Qudamah stopped. Immediately, he placed his hand on the purse at his belt. “Yes?”
“Wait, I know you!”
“I don’t think so.”
“Yes, yes, I do!” The other children were playing with a ragged ball, kicking it back and forth, and they paid no heed to the boy and Qudamah. As Qudamah looked at this boy, he saw that his eyes were strange – as if the pupils were half the size of a normal boy’s, and there was too much white. A chill ran down Qudamah’s spine.
“You are the boy from Beshabar! You are looking for someone, no?”
Was it truly so obvious he was of Beshabar?
“How…?” Qudamah asked slowly, then cleared his throat. “How do you know that?”
“My father works in The Harmattan Princes, and he told me someone had come in, looking, looking for…” The boy was hopping from foot to foot now, clearly excited. He flashed a brilliant smile. Qudamah watched him, uneasy. “Ehmir?”
“Amir,” Qudamah said slowly.
“Yes! That’s it!” The boy laughed. “You seek Amir? Amir the white man?”
“Yes…” Qudamah said. Despite himself, he added, “Do you know him?”
The boy nodded fervently, waved his arm, “Come with me!”
And the child leapt away, laughing, teasing, so that Qudamah was forced to run after him. He followed this young boy, with his too-bright hair and too-bright eyes, as the child sprinted and dodged and scuttled away through the crowds – leading him deep into the alleyways of Dashmir, where the Ghibli men thronged, and the women bustled past with enormous baskets balanced solely on their heads.
Qudamah glanced around him - almost fearful that he should see Sepya. But no, the Aajej man was gone - no doubt enjoying his taryâk in an inn somewhere. Good. Qudamah did not want the other boy to see this – he did not want Sepya there, in that moment when Qudamah learned what had become of his father. And so he ran after the nameless Ghibli boy until there was a free space and he could sprint freely. He lengthened his stride, raced after the child, until finally – at a corner leading to another alley in this interminable maze – he managed to grab a piece of the boy’s shirt and pull him back. The boy fell back with a yelp, and then turned to glare.
Qudamah was breathing hard. He put a hand up to signal for the boy to wait a moment, and then he placed his other hand on his waist where an ache had formed.
“Wait… wait…” he gasped. “How do you know… we are speaking… of the same man?”
“You seek a white man named Amir, yes?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” Qudamah said. His breath was returning, and so he closed his mouth, breathed through his nose.
“It is not your business.”
“Well, the Amir I know,” the boy began, “is a man from Gondor who wandered for a very long time.”
“Yes. That’s him.”
“And he has yellow hair and serpent eyes. Like yours.”
Qudamah rolled his eyes. “Yes.”
“And he has a big nose. Like yours.”
“Yes, good. Well, it seems that – ”
“And he is shorter than you and fatter than you and he came from Abbas in Beshabar and he was a drunkard and every night he would weep into his mirtem like a stupid child!”
The boy had rambled all of this in one breath, and he inhaled quickly after doing so. Qudamah stared, stunned. This side-street was nearly empty, with only the sound of an occasional woman’s voice as she called to her children from the windows above. A breeze passed through, making the striped awnings of the Ghibli stores flap and flutter. The boy was watching Qudamah now, as if waiting for a reaction. And Qudamah – a sharp, humiliating pain lanced through him – and he fought for control – fought back the rising tide of rage – a desire to strike this child, or push him away and turn around and return to Beshabar and forget this foolish, wretched, pitiful father.
His voice trembled as he asked, “How do you know that?”
The boy’s stare changed from curiosity to wariness, and he shook his head quickly. “Don’t be angry with me.” With that, he turned around, “Come on!” And he was gone, running back down the alley. Qudamah was forced to follow.
After several more twists and turns, so that Qudamah became entirely confused as to where they were in relation to the Gates of Dashmir, the boy stopped, turned around, waited by an awning. And Qudamah stopped running, walked the length of the way. The angry tears, the knot in his throat and ache in his chest – all of this had thankfully receded back into the usual, controllable sting – and Qudamah reminded himself in a drone, Whatever you have heard, this will be worse. This will be worse. This will be worse. Prepare yourself.
There was a beggar sitting outside, leaning back against the wall. The boy was standing beside him, waiting for Qudamah to arrive, and for a moment, Qudamah’s chest constricted. But once Qudamah was almost there, the boy smiled, dodged into the tavern.
Inside. The architecture followed the style of Ghibli – and so the first arch, which led into the main room, was formed by a train of stained-glass mûmakil, holding each other’s tails, following each other over the arch. All the other arches were smooth. It was a dark tavern, with several small windows on one wall. The tables were made of thick Imbati wood, with designs carved into the side. The main room was empty. And Qudamah caught also the rows and rows of hookahs lined up on shelves behind the counter. So this was also a smoking room.
The man behind the counter was an overweight man with tightly-curled hair and a short nose. The boy had run up to the counter and was sitting on one of the stools, leaning forward and speaking in the local dialect with the man. Every so often, the boy would indicate Qudamah and the man would watch him for a long moment before nodding slowly.
Finally, after the boy finished speaking, the man leaned back, frowning, “Ehmir?” He looked at Qudamah. “You seek Ehmir the Northerner?”
Qudamah stepped forward. He could see the stains on the man’s shirt.
“Aye, I do.”
The fat man chuckled.
“Ha! Do not tell me you’re his son, eh? Eh? Little – what was his name – Qubilah? Mudamah?”
He began laughing outright, and the boy too. Qudamah had to do everything to keep under control. Instead, he raised his voice over their laughter,
“Nay, I am the son of a moneylender in Beshabar. I have been sent by my father to seek payment from this Amir. My name is Sepya.”
The laughter faded, and the man watched him for a moment, shrewdly, until finally he placed his hand on his heart. “Very well, young Sepya. I am Farraj, owner of this tavern.” He smiled broadly. “Please, sit. Have you eaten? My son will get you something to eat and drink – Mundhir!”
There was some shuffling in the back. Qudamah slowly eased himself into a seat at the counter. The boy, who had been kneeling on the seat to lean forward on the bar, immediately plopped down to Qudamah’s left and smiled. Farraj turned, busied himself with retrieving glasses. He poured them both a glass of water and then poured Qudamah a customary glass of mirtem.
A young man arrived – thin, with a full beard and a face glistening with oil.
“Ah, Mundhir,” Farraj said. “Get this young man something from the kitchen.” The boy made a noise, so that Farraj added, “And for the boy.”
Once Mundhir was gone, and Qudamah had finished his water and begun sipping his mirtem, Farraj leaned with one hand against the counter.
“Well, young Sepya… I shall tell you now that you won’t find Ehmir in Dashmir, not anymore. I don’t know how long ago he made this debt, but the man left Dashmir – ah,” Farraj squinted, looked up at the ceiling, “perhaps four? Five years past?”
Qudamah nodded, forcing his face into only mild interest. “Do you know where he is now? My father… he lives in Tadmur of Beshabar, and the journey has been very far. However… I am not to return until I have at least found whether this man is living or dead. Know you where Amir is now?”
“Now?” Farraj scratched his beard, shrugged. “Well, if what he said in the end was truth, then he has long since left Ghibli, and Harad altogether. He was going north, I heard, to Umbar.”
“Umbar?” Qudamah asked.
Mundhir arrived with a steaming plate of soummi and vegetables, garnished with the sweet spice of Ghibli, jillul.
“So he said,” Farraj said. “I don’t know how much you know of Ehmir, but he was a troubled man, Sepya, very troubled. And I’ll not be surprised if you never find him – because men go to Umbar to lose themselves, and if you say he had a debt with your father, well, he went to hide in the Corsair’s land – stingy as you Beshabari can be, if you forgive me for saying.” Farraj sighed, shook his head. “Ah, but he had debts of another kind too, my young friend! He left a woman and child in Abbas, I heard, though he never spoke why – but, better for all of them, I say! The man was a half-beggar, a drunkard. Not a father, no, no. One day, he came to sleep in the gutter, right outside.” Farraj pointed. “And ever since, he stayed. I am not charitable man, Sepya, but the man could tell very good stories, so I let him stay.”
“How long did he stay here?” Qudamah asked, hoarse.
“Oh… a year? Maybe a little more. Not very long.”
“And you heard nothing of him afterward.”
“No, nothing.” Farraj smiled. Qudamah hid his face by looking down, picking at his food. “You go to Umbar then? Far ride, no?”
“I shall…” Qudamah cleared his throat. “I shall have to ask my father. Perhaps I will send him a letter.”
“Yes! See what your Bapu tells you. If you ask me,” Farraj crossed his arms, “I would say do not go. You will waste your time.” He chuckled. “Well… maybe not. It all depends on how big this debt is!” And with that, he roared with laughter.
Qudamah gave a weak smile before busying himself with his food. Yet he could not eat, his appetite was gone. After pushing the soummi around on his plate, nibbling idly on a piece of flat bread, he eventually pushed his plate aside so that the boy could eat. Farraj excused himself, leaving the two alone. And as Qudamah listened to the child beside him eat, loud, sloppy, he leaned forward on his elbows, stared at the counter, and thought.
He thought of his mother, and what she would say if she knew where he was. He thought of the letter he had received from his father – he wondered if this was the very tavern where his father had written it. He thought of the way Sepya had laughed and jested with him about this fruitless search, urging him to make use of this excuse if only to learn more about the customs of Gondor. He thought of the stains of sweat on Farraj’s shirt, and how the man had laughed, booming, when he had asked whether Qudamah was Amir’s son, what was his name? Qubilah? Mudamah?
And he thought of his father – had his father even been capable of slurring the three syllables of his name? Would his father even care to know that Oma was dead, that her last words were your Bapu – that she had been thinking of him, even in her last hour? And Qudamah thought – he thought of what he would say to this man, his father – what he would do to him. He thought of how he would go to Umbar, or north, or wherever, and he would travel and travel and cross all of the lands – if only to find his father – a beggar, a drunkard – and slit his throat for the suffering he had brought Oma. Or Qudamah would strike him, and for every day his mother had spent in pain, for every day she had spent wasting away with the sickness, he would strike his father until the blood coated his hands and he would have his retribution.
“Sepya, are you well?”
Qudamah turned away, wiped his eyes. The boy had finished his meal and he was leaning now, over the empty plate, staring at Qudamah. In that moment, Farraj returned from outside. He was just crossing the main room when Qudamah looked up, called,
“Is there a room? I will need to stay in Dashmir until I have heard word from my father.”
“Yes, certainly, young Sepya!” Farraj smiled, beaming. He raised his voice. “Mundhir!” Turning back to them, “We have rooms upstairs.”
And so, once Mundhir arrived, Qudamah told the older boy where his horse was so that Mundhir could retrieve Saad. And when Mundhir left, Qudamah paid Farraj and the overweight Ghibli man led him upstairs and down a narrow hallway to a small room.
The room had one thin, deep window, and only a narrow cot to sleep in. Qudamah could hear the sounds of people shuffling down the alleyway below, an occasional cry. In the room, there were stains on the walls. The original designs of women dancing around anthropomorphic mûmakil had been defaced and vulgarized by the uneven scrawl of the hundred other drunkards and addicts that had taken this room before him.
There was a basin, and Qudamah took it, went down the hallway to the main washing room. He filled his basin with water, carried it back to his room, closed the door.
He changed, washed himself, shook the water through his hair so that he could feel the sand shifting – gritty – on his scalp. After drying himself with a piece of his robe, he put on his loose pants again, and laid down on the bed. It smelled acidic, and the stench of urine was wafting from somewhere – Qudamah hoped it was not the bed – but it smelled like it was coming from the far corner of the room. Yet he was too exhausted to do anything about it. When he had traveled through the desert, he and Sepya had always slept during the daytime, and now it was late afternoon.
Golden light glanced off the orange-red windowsill, reflected against the ceiling – patterns and stretching shapes and glowing, burning sun – and Qudamah realized he had never thanked the nameless Ghibli boy for bringing him to Farraj…
The anger was gone now. As he drifted off to sleep, Qudamah thought of his father – when his father would tease him, jest with him, pick him up and throw him high in the air, laughing, only to catch him and do it again. And the way Oma had looked – fuller, beautiful, not like in the last days – as she would watch from the doorway, leaning against the frame, arms crossed, chiding Bapu to be careful. And Bapu would laugh like a rumbling roar, and he would pull little Qudamah close, embracing him with both arms, and he would feign to whisper in Qudamah’s ear: be careful, my son, and do what your Oma says – do you know that she beats your poor Bapu?
No! Why does she beat you? Qudamah would ask, and Bapu would shush him. Shhhh…
What are you telling him? Oma would raise her voice. And then Bapu would give his son a knowing look, carry him to his mother, and there Bapu would kiss Oma on the cheek and growl something in her ear. And she would pull away with a shocked laugh, and slap him on the shoulder, exclaiming, Amir!
And after she had hit his shoulder, Bapu would turn to Qudamah: see? See what I told you?
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