Many Guises and Many Names
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Where the Stars are Strange: 4. Through the Long Dark Night
The land stretched barren for miles, save for a strip of brilliant green that hugged the river banks. Sun and heat were the constants in this dry land: An-Bayrt ur tanobrin, ani irithalti. Words–alien in sound and yet familiar nonetheless–given voice by strangers repeating the wisdom of a land long bereft of its seas: the sky and the sands, they cradle us. Stone houses bearing carved sigils upon the lintels, dizzying designs that yet recalled another city, fair and tall. Remembrance–genyai–so sweet it cuts to the bone and leaves a man aching for days! Genyai inkano they call such memories here, and smile, for there is a saying for every experience beneath An-Bayrt ur Ket Yan, beneath the Sun and the Red Eye. Alien speech and alien ways… even the sky is unfamiliar, and the stars bear new names. So very wearying, all the strangeness of the world, where men serve honorably a dishonorable lord and the sun's light is a cruel torment…!
Aragorn came suddenly out of that twilit state where memory and dreams run together, heedless of boundaries. The moon shone through the cave's mouth, its cold light weirdly juxtaposed with the fever that still burned in his veins. Pain still racked him with every breath, but not so sharply as before. Or perhaps the pain was only less by comparison, for it had taken all of Aragorn's strength to keep from crying out as the Haradrim treated his injuries. Mercifully, he had swooned in the middle of the process, and it seemed that Indirkan had done his best. I ought to be grateful to him, Aragorn thought but could not summon anything more than a wan relief. Mostly, he felt exhausted, and as he closed his eyes once more, feeling the stones cool against his throbbing temples, he longed for the forgetfulness of sleep. And yet even that was not enough. What I need is rest, not sleep–to return home again, to find some certain ground once more! Something moved, and a shadow fell across Aragorn's face. After a moment, the Ranger abandoned the idea of pretending to sleep, and he moved carefully to sit up, wincing slightly. Indirkan's voice, quiet and deadly serious, broke the silence. "I could have killed you, you know." Aragorn took a slightly deeper breath, but made no response, judging silence to be best. Indirkan turned after a moment from the moonlit landscape and walked slowly toward him. As he sank to his haunches before the Ranger, he drew once more Aragorn's dagger. The blade glinted, and for a time, both stared as the silvery light showed keen along its edge. Steel kissed Aragorn's throat just below his jaw line, and Indirkan raised burning eyes as he asked softly, "Why do you trust me so?"
For his part, Aragorn did not so much as twitch, gazing steadily at the lad, reading the other's forlorn despair all too easily. Akin indeed! he thought, searching in vain for words that might reassure the other, that could explain what was, in the end, inexplicable. Unsurprisingly, he could think of nothing. Nothing, at any rate, that he could have expressed in Haradric, in a manner that would have touched Indirkan. Such words as were needed for this difficult occasion required utter sincerity on the part of the speaker, and that was beyond his power to give at the moment. For Aragorn's faith had its roots in a tradition and heritage that were mute before the peril of the southern deserts, knowing nothing of the beauty the Haradrim found there. Likewise, the manner after which the Haradrim spoke was ignorant of all that a Ranger of the North held dear, and so in moments where speech was most needed, both sides were rendered speechless by the gulf that yawned between them. And of late, what faith I have is not enough to sustain even me, let alone another.
"I fear I have no answer for you," Aragorn said reluctantly, and immediately, the Haradrim interjected.
"If not you, then has no one!" Indirkan hissed in a despairing tone. While Khordan had lain unconscious, his thoughts had been hard indeed. I can never simply return home. Not now. I could never learn to hide my disgust, and ere long my own father would be forced to proclaim me for what I am! Almost, he fancied he could feel the noose round his neck. Worse, in his mind's eye, he saw the horrified faces of his father and Kirdali, his sister, as they condemned him along with the rest of Dargalt. That was a fate he could scarce bear to think upon, and he felt the wounded, frightened center of himself snarl hatefully in response. Indeed, that part of him still demanded Khordan's blood as payment for the bitter epiphany this afternoon. That same splinter of hate had even taken a perverse pleasure in the fact that Khordan had suffered under his ministrations, reveling in the knowledge that even had he wished to ease the other's pain, he had not had the means to do so. Indirkan was rather appalled with himself for such spite, but while the other had lain helplessly under his power, the temptation to use that dagger had been constant. I could still do it, that vengeful and frightened part of him whispered. He would not stop me either! A life for a life, is that not the way of things? A life for what little of worth I might have had to offer?
A moment he let temptation speak, feeling his muscles quiver as he hovered on the brink of murder, but then he sighed. Opening his eyes again, he withdrew the blade, gazing down at it with something like disgust. So much in Harad was determined on the point of a dagger, and yet Indirkan, aware as never before of all of his doubts, found no consolation there. It seemed that all he had learned in his life dangled by the thread of his own loyalty, and now that that fragile tie had been cut, everything was adrift in chaos. "'The first gift of Lord Annatar is knowledge,'" he murmured softly, shaking his head. "But of what worth, that knowledge? It leads only to sorrow!"
Aragorn, however, upon hearing that, stiffened, staring at Indirkan with a strange intensity. In the midst of his troubles, it seemed a thousand years ago that he had sat in the depths of the library vaults of Minas Tirith, preparing for this journey. But as he had begun to train his tongue not to trip over the breathy, over-aspirated syllables of Haradric, he had come across a brittle set of scrolls that must have dated to the Second Age, or only shortly thereafter. Saratin Annataru they were called, and aptly, for contained therein were the Precepts of Annatar. It was possibly the most extensive piece of Haradrim philosophy ever collected in the West, and Aragorn had been fascinated. Indirkan's quotation recalled those long hours of study, and the pleasure of learning a foreign tongue… and quite by accident reminded him that the hours he had devoted to the Saratin Annataru were hours that every Haradrim child had shared. For just as every well-educated man in the West knew the tale of Elendil and his sons, so every Haradrim could recite the Precepts. Strange indeed that something of Sauron's crafting should inspire a Ranger's passion as well as a Haradrim's, thought he, as he replied, "'A life lived in ignorance is not worth living.' Are we not taught thus from our earliest days? And yet we are dull students, for we fail in the test!"
"I do not understand," Indirkan replied flatly.
"Try harder then," Aragorn urged, letting a trace of impatience creep into his tone. "If there be any worth in the teachings of Annatar, it lies only in your willingness to use the gift given, even if usage wounds mortally!" Indirkan's eyes flicked to Aragorn's chest briefly, and the older man gave a slight, sardonic smile at that. "Even so!" he said softly in reply to the other's thoughts.
"And to what possible use shall I put knowledge of my own treacherous core? Shall I confess myself before the scaffold?"
"How doubt doth poison the well-spring of good intentions," sighed Aragorn ruefully, and had to smother a flare of frustration with Indirkan's woeful obstinancy. Remember who you are, that you came to this desolate place! he reminded himself firmly. What cause have I to condemn this lad when I wallow in my own pain just as readily?
"What would you have me do, then?" Indirkan demanded, skeptical.
"You continue to question me," replied the Ranger. "Turn your questions inward! Ask yourself: why did you not slit my throat when you could easily have done so? Why did you offer to help one to whom you owed nothing?"
Indirkan stared at him a moment, then averted his eyes, seeming ashamed. "You paint me better than I am," he said, flatly.
"I am a traitor!"
"What means that word when we speak not of lords and loyalties, but of pity?"
"Pity!" Indirkan shook his head. "Think you that I did not relish the hurt you suffered at my hands? Who am I to sully the word by speaking it?"
"Who, indeed? You know shame at least, and that is more than many can say!" Aragorn sighed. He hesitated a moment, debating with himself, then asked quietly, " What will you do now? Take up that dagger and use it? Or stay your hand another day?"
Indirkan snorted softly, glancing up at him. "I shall not use the dagger. Not today, at least! But beyond tonight, I know not whither I must go, nor what I must do!"
And Aragorn, watching the other's anguished face, felt a vast sympathy for the lad. "I know well the malady from which you suffer, lad!" he murmured. "And I can offer you no reassurance: whithersoever you go, you shall be often alone, and where you place your trust and for what reasons perhaps not even you shall know. It is a lonely fate, and I would not have you take it up unless you are able to tell me, now, that to serve Sauron of Mordor would do you more violence than would a life of masks and exile." And what violence have I done myself, as the years wear by? For though Aragorn knew he had to choose the latter life, yet he feared to lose himself to the contours of his assumed personae.
"If you know it so well, then why do you continue? Why not end it?" Indirkan demanded, weighing the knife in the palm of his hand.
Why not end it? Because I cannot… Arwen's voice and laughter are too dear to lose… because it is not mete to quit my post ere my task is finished… because I owe it to others–Gilraen, Arwen, even Gandalf–to remain in this world…. Aragorn closed his eyes a moment, letting the jumble of reasons mingle chaotically. Because… in the end, I have too much to lose. We all do! If it were only a question of shedding all pretense, then perhaps death might be welcome, but it is not. Pretense alone did not bring me to this pass, for I did not so much tire of Thorongil as outgrow him. But in Gondor, every stone and tree is familiar, a part of what I know and love; here, the stones speak in tongues and there are no trees!
Muddled as his thoughts were by exhaustion, that last reason spoke with crystal-edged clarity, much to his relief. It was not, however, the response that Indirkan sought, or even a response Aragorn could give, and so he replied, "That, too, is a question I cannot answer for you. I think you know that." He raised a brow at Indirkan, whose slight grimace acknowledged that he did. "But I think you may find, if you choose to tread the same path that I have, that you are not so alone as you believe. There will be others who will see what you have seen, and come away from the encounter as shaken as you were."
"Perhaps. But how shall I find them?"
"You will learn to recognize them, I should say," Aragorn said serenely. Indirkan gave a sharp bark of skeptical laughter at that, then twisted to look over his shoulder at the moon sinking below the lip of the cave's ledge.
"Morning comes, and another day of heat," he sighed. He turned back to the Ranger and hesitated, considering him. "I suppose that I shall have to trust you yet again," said he, and there was the barest hint of ironic humor in his voice.
"That would be a beginning!" Aragorn replied, lying down once more, willing to succumb to his exhaustion. After a few moments more, he felt another body settle in beside him, lying back to back, and he smiled in the darkness. May it be a rebirth for us both!
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