Many Guises and Many Names
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Where the Stars are Strange: 5. Daybreak
The day was well advanced when Indirkan, lounging as comfortably as he could against one of the cave's boulders, noticed that Khordan had awakened. Though the other as yet had not so much as twitched, instinct told him that his chance companion had suddenly ceased to sleep, rousing in an instant as was habitual among warriors and the hunted. In spite of himself, the Haradrim felt tension coil tight in the pit of his stomach. Lying at the other's back as the dark hours drifted by and the false dawn came and went, Indirkan knew well that Khordan had not stirred even once. Worn out by pain and hard travels, the other had slept the sleep of utter exhaustion. Would that I could drown my fears in sleep's forgetfulness! Indirkan had thought enviously. It had been hard to lie there with his eyes shut, willing himself to sleep, feeling the warmth of the other's body against his in the darkness while his mind vomited up memory after troublesome memory, summoning incidents from his childhood that took on new and ominous meaning: his questions as he had studied the Precepts, his fear of the tall warriors who marched through the village, taking whom they would on the orders of the Overlord; his deeply uneasy acceptance of the principle that what was done in the name of the Red Eye was always legitimate.
And on the heels of such doubts came the fear: fear of discovery, but also fear of loss. Kirdali's face haunted him, and he felt the pressure of her phantom eyes tearing him apart. How could I think of leaving her? Accounted beautiful even by those who scorned her tainted bloodlines, Indirkan had always been fiercely protective of his younger sister, seeking to shield her from a marriage of convenience. For she was dear to him, a solace from the judgment of others, a haven for a frustrated brother. She is, he realized, someone I could serve gladly above all others. She was my comfort and my queen. Indirkan shook his head, turning his realizations over in his mind, disturbed by their implications.
Was I born a traitor? Or is all of it a part of a long shaping? Indirkan knew not the answer to that, and his tired reflections as the day had waxed had brought him no nearer to enlightenment. Indeed, felt himself severed from all that he had known before. At least you know shame! Khordan's voice cut through the other memories, and Indirkan's mouth tightened. Yes, I am now well-acquainted with shame, thanks to this past night! And now Khordan wakes again. What more shall I learn of him? For under the other's penetrating stare, Indirkan felt utterly transparent, stripped of any possible refuge. It was not a comfortable feeling, and yet he sought it out now. I must know! I must know everything, and though I understand not how or why, Khordan is the key to all that I am possibly to all that I shall ever become. So, dreading further revelations, yet drawn to the mirror that Khordan's silver regard provided, Indirkan steeled himself and turned once more to face his unusual companion as Khordan stirred at last.
"Good day," he offered casually, watching the older man closely. "The sun is high, and all wise creatures hide themselves from their daily enemy."
"Good day to you as well," the other replied, grimacing as he sat up. Then, ignoring the pain, he rose carefully and made his way to the mouth of the cave, there to gaze out at the sun-soaked rocks. "I thought you would have left by now."
"And whither would I go?" Indirkan asked, unstoppering his water flask and taking a long swallow. "Home, to a father who will one day disown me on the executioner's scaffold? To a sister whose heart I would break? Here!" he added, and as Khordan turned, he tossed the flask to him. "Let it not be said that I care not for your health after all the pains I have taken and inflicted!"
With a soft snort of laughter, Khordan raised the flask in a silent salute ere he drank. "Well-spoken, and I thank you for all such pains." Those grey eyes watched him ever, and Indirkan shifted restlessly. What now? His mind raced, seeking questions answers insults, anything to keep the silence from deepening, yet he could not bring himself to speak. "Hard are the hours that follow revelations," Khordan surprised him by continuing after awhile. "Happenstance is a fickle companion who robs a man of all he thought his own, even his name. 'Tis unreasonable to think you will rediscover your purpose all in a day, Indirkan."
"I doubt it not," the younger man sighed. "How does one continue?"
With a slight shrug, the other answered, "Even as you do now. You have refused the knife's solution, thus time will draw you onwardwill continue you, as it were."
"Do not confuse me with philosophy!" the Haradrim replied sharply, shaking his head, "You know that is not my question!"
"I do, but tell me then what you would have me say," Khordan said softly, his words falling into a heated silence. Indirkan hung his head, and listened as the other went on after a moment, "There are some answers that come only from experience, or which have their origin in the choice rather than in speculation. Look not to me, but ask yourself what you shall do now. Have you decided?"
"Did you not say only moments ago that it is unreasonable to demand of me purpose hard upon such a night as we have passed?" Indirkan asked, avoiding an answer, but Khordan shook his head as he came and eased down before him.
"I said it would be unreasonable for you to rediscover it. This is not a matter of finding your end, but of choosing to walk the path set you, in spite of misgivings. That we cannot escape with convenient excuses," said he.
"Even if I have no faith in the road that I take?" the Haradrim demanded.
"Especially if you have no faith," Aragorn countered. As well I know! he thought, and wondered at the sardonic humor of the world, that he whose weariness had led him to doubt on the brink of despair, should advise one now suffering the same affliction. But one of us must say these things, though neither of us is able to believe them at the moment. Inwardly, he felt a twinge of hard-edged amusement as he acknowledged his own advice. Belief is beside the point. Did I not just say so?
Indirkan was silent for a long while, and Aragorn let his own thoughts wander over the rock-studded plains of Harad, to the chaparrals of Umbar and the deep-riven canyons that lay on the borders of Khand and Mordor. Lit ever by a brazen sun, there was no relief in these parched lands from the open sky, from exposure, and Aragorn had never before realized how wearing that could be on a man. And yet there was something oddly alluring about Harad's vast plains, and as he gazed at Indirkan, he felt himself respond to it, though gropingly, as a blind man. Or a man blinded! The mystique of the desert which drew Indirkan out into that pitiless light called to him, and he heard it dimly, as an echo of what he felt for the forested vales of his home. One comes here to be alone, to touch something real without the mediation of others, Aragorn mused, staring out at the uniformly bright landscape. But for me, the desert can only uncover conflict, it cannot mend it. Of their own volition, his thoughts turned then homeward: to Gondor and Eriador; to Rivendell, and a chance to regain his balance. Harad is a strange place, he decided, and though I cannot regret having seen it, it is past time that I left it behind. Experimentally, he breathed in more deeply, feeling the pull of the stitches as a sharp sting. His chest still ached badly, and would for many days and weeks, but the pain was bearable, and after having slept long he felt more like himself again.
"You spoke last night of others who would be 'overlooked' by the Red Eye," Indirkan said at that moment, and raised clear brown eyes to search Aragorn's face. "Do you know this, or do you guess?"
"I know it," Aragorn replied, thinking of the many who had sheltered him. "In most towns, you will find a few who will share your doubts. But for one such as you, a city would be a better place to hide."
"Why?" Indirkan asked, frowning apprehensively. "Are not there more soldiers in a city?"
"But also more people. In such places, it is easy to disappear, and many are they who, because they live beneath the watchful eyes of the Dark Lord's soldiers, human and otherwise, have learned to loathe their Overlord."
"Yet they are unmolested?" It was less a question than a statement, but Indirkan found it difficult to believe and sought confirmation from the other.
"Unmolested and unnoticed, for they have learned the art of hiding in plain sight."
"As have you," Indirkan said, and looked hard at him once more, though there was more curiosity than animosity in that piercing regard now. "How long since any has been trusted with your true name?"
"Many years," Aragorn admitted, and then smiled crookedly. "Longer than I care to recall!"
"And your family?" Indirkan asked, broaching that subject most on his mind at the moment. Kirdali's face hovered in his vision as a ghost, and he felt a wrench at the thought of leaving her without so much as a farewell. "Know they aught of you now?"
"I cannot say. Perhaps," Aragorn shrugged, unwilling to say too much on that delicate subject.
"I would see Kirdali again," Indirkan muttered, glancing away again. "My sister," he added swiftly, sensing the question that hovered in the air. For his part, Aragorn said naught, gazing intently at the young man. His first instinct had been to advise against returning to Dargalt, but he stilled it as he read in the other's downcast eyes his dependence upon that bond with Kirdali. Aragorn had said far too many farewells over the years, yet he regretted most the times when he had not spoken those words and so lost forever the chance to truly say good-bye. More, he knew well the strength that came of familial bonds, for he had relied upon that strength many times to save himself from that darkness that was of his own crafting. The ties that bound him to those whom he loved were too integral to his continued existence to be doubted or disturbed. Thus short of his own death, Aragorn had never faced the possibility of the sudden and brutal truncation of all those relationships. Indirkan's was a different sort of loss from the kind to which he was accustomed, and he shivered inwardly.
"I do not envy you," he said finally, and in his soft-spoken words rang such utter sincerity that Indirkan blushed visibly, casting a rather puzzled look at him.
"What did you do, then, after after you decided your path?" he asked, still unable to speak directly of betrayal. But this I would know, and not only because I would pierce that veil he keeps ever between himself and all others. What makes a man such as Khordan? Solitary he is, but one must begin somewhere, and with others others who must be left behind. And so he watched the other closely, curious, and was surprised to see how the other's eyes softened in an instant, and a slight smile played about Khordan's mouth ere he ducked his head, rubbing a hand over two weeks' worth of beard as if to hide his reaction. "What is it?" Indirkan asked, suspecting that he amused the other in some way, though he knew not how.
"Naught," the other replied softly, shaking his head as the mask slipped back into place.
"Will you not tell me more of yourself?" Indirkan asked. "Caution is well and good, but have you not already decided to trust me? Or do you both trust and speak by halves?"
There was a brief silence. Then, "I should have learned by now not to allow others to play me thus!" Khordan sighed, and as the older man gazed at him, Indirkan perceived a certain admiration in the other's silver regard.
"You do that well. Disarmingly, I should say, to be quite accurate!" The Haradrim cocked his head, considering that remark in light of a glimmer of understanding that had begun to make itself known to him. "I think," he said slowly, feeling his confidence grow as he spoke, "that you allow nothing, Khordan. If another plays you, then it is because you would be played. Or do I miss the mark when I say that the game is in your blood?" he asked, by way of sly challenge.
"In my blood indeed!" Aragorn replied with sardonic humor, though his mind raced as he sought a plausible way to turn the other's questions aside without inviting more. 'The game' in Harad that had but one meaning, and if Aragorn found it telling that 'the game' was really no more than the contest of accused and accuser, whereby 'justice' was meted out by creative ordeal, he had to concede that the comparison was apt. Such trials took on the flavor of a ghoulish spectacle, and even a murderer might find a moment of popular adulation if he endured well the challenge put to him, or was able to outwit his opponent for a time. Yes, too apt a comparison it is, but if the world is a song's crafting, as the Elves maintain, then why should not life be an ordeal, a challenge made and accepted in earnest? Then would Indirkan be right, for 'the game' has been in my line since its beginning! Indirkan's dark eyes were bright as a slight, knowing smile tugged at his lips, and Aragorn knew that his own silence confirmed the other's insight. "Then stand I accused by you, Indirkan?"
"Say not accused, but questioned, yes. And you have not answered me yet: will you tell me something more of yourself, or have you repented of your trust?" Indirkan demanded once more, leaving no room for evasion. What truth can I give him that will satisfy his curiosity and leave me still Khordan, rather than Aragorn, to him?
"What would you know, then?"
"As I said: what did you do, once you knew you could not serve the Overlord," Indirkan said, and his eyes narrowed as Khordan gazed down once more, bright eyes veiled by dark lashes. The Haradrim struggled a moment to determine what strange emotion possessed the other ere he realized quite suddenly that it was shyness! He had not expected that, nor the self-conscious bemusement that the other evinced.
"If you must know I fell in love," came the awkward reply, and Indirkan gaped at him.
"You?" Disbelief left him tactless as well as graceless, but Khordan merely nodded. "How? Why?"
"Why should anyone love another?" the other countered. But then he was silent a moment, considering, ere he said, "Sometimes a shock can clear the mind: one is willing to see in a different light all that one 'knew' hitherto, and to act, where before one would never have dared." There came another pause while Khordan stared at him, and a slight, almost mischievous smile curving his lips. "Is it so hard to believe?"
"I ." Indirkan could not finish the thought, realizing that it might be unwise to admit that he suspected the other of a prank at his expense. "Yes," he finally managed. Then, "And does she did she ?"
"Whatever the truth, I must believe she loves me," the other replied softly, and the two of them shared a look of humorless commiseration, ere Khordan continued, "Verily, I know not whether I ought to hope that she does. What, after all, could I bring her if not pain?" That last was voiced quietly, with an edge of wounded apprehension that stilled any further thought that this might be simply a goad, or an ill-timed joke. Indirkan bit his lip, feeling himself lost on a cloudy night, uncertain of what, if anything, to say. For through his own desperate hope that Kirdali might forgive him the choice he was about to make, he could grasp the torment that uncertainty inflicted upon the other man. How if Kirdali should condemn me? It is as he says, I must believe that she will not, that she will understand, but I fear to put her to the test and learn otherwise! But could I live with such doubts, never knowing the measure of her pain?
For his part, Aragorn wondered at himself, that he should confess to a Haradrim what he kept secret from many in the West, even those whom he yet accounted friends. Why this secret? Why confide this one, out of all of the others, and to a stranger rather than a friend? Perhaps because it was a harmless truth here, isolated from the persona of Khordan, and therefore safe to declare. Or perhaps I wish someone to know someone whose judgment of necessity cannot touch me. Valar know I would sing it from the mountain tops in Rivendell if I could! He gazed at the bewildered Indirkan, and doubt voiced a third possiblity: Or perhaps I do so because he is no longer simply a stranger! The Haradrim appeared lost in his own thoughts for a time, seeming to ponder what significance this odd confession might have for his own plight. Alas, Aragorn knew not precisely what, if anything, he had wished to convey with his mention of Arwen, yet somehow it had seemed appropriate. Perhaps because the women we love have such a hold over us both, though they may not realize it, he thought. Halbarad, Elrond and my 'brothers', Gandalffor them I would die if my death were needed, but it is for Arwen that I live. I guess that it stands thus also between Indirkan and his sister. And if that were so . If he goes never back to her, then he is lost. As I would be! Aragorn thought, and drew a deeper breath, ignoring the pain, taking that to heart as he resolved once more to leave Harad as soon as possible.
"What is her name?" Indirkan asked suddenly into the silence that had fallen, gazing intently at Khordan.
"Ûrherané," the other replied, and the younger man raised his brows at that.
"'Evenstar'?" he repeated. "Will you see her again?" Indirkan asked finally, after a long pause. He saw Khordan's eyes flicker at that, blazing suddenly with emotion that ranged from hope to dread, and then shifted suddenly to resolution.
"If fortune is kind, yes," said he. "And will you return to bid your Kirdali farewell?" Khordan asked, cocking his head as he swiped at a few errant strands of dark hair. Indirkan hesitated, but after a moment he answered firmly:
"Good," Aragorn replied softly, feeling an odd and vicarious satisfaction at that.
"Whither will you go, when you are able?" asked the younger man after another lengthy silence.
"West," the other replied laconically, and Indirkan snorted.
"Then shall you have more need of fortune than I!" he said wryly. "If those loyal to the Overlord do not find you there, then Gondor's soldiery may slit your throat for you!" Indirkan hesitated a beat. Then, "This is farewell, then, is it?"
"So it seems. But," Khordan paused, and his glance was sharp and keen as he gazed at the younger man. "I think I shall see you again."
"When? How?" Indirkan asked, surprised and doubtful, but not displeased.
"It may be long, and I know not how, but look for me whithersoever you wander." The sun was arching downwards now, sinking into the west, and the two men rose and went to the cave's mouth. Harad shimmered still under the sun, but the shadows of the rocks were lengthening quickly, and Indirkan tasted in the wind a hint of cool as evening drew on in earnest. He turned once more to Khordan, and after a moment extended the other's dagger, hilt first, and Khordan grasped the handle, enfolding his hand as well. For a moment they stood thus, and it seemed a fitting parting gesture for their swift-born and adversarial friendship. Finally, though, Khordan withdrew, sheathing the weapon and he watched as Indirkan wrapped the scarf round to protect his face ere he drew up his hood against the light. Then the Haradrim began to pick his way through the rocky terrain. But ere he disappeared from sight, he paused and called back formally, "May the sky look kindly upon you!"
"May you always find water," Aragorn responded, and Indirkan halted his progress a moment, gazing back intently. It was not quite the traditional farewell, but the boy seemed to understand his meaning, and the Ranger knew by the way the other's eyes crinkled at the corners that Indirkan smiled behind the veil. He waited in shadows of the cave until at long last he saw a small figure appear beyond the rocks and begin to walk south east across the dusty plain. Then he sighed softly, though there gleamed now a light in his eyes that bespoke rebirth at last. He still needed time to heal ere he dared the trek westward, but if his heart was not yet at peace, still, he had emerged from the shadow of despair. Speaking to the emptiness that attested now poignantly to the other's absence, he murmured, "I wish you good fortune, Indirkan of the House of Rhanion!" And then, more softly, and to himself, "Rhanion ." he repeated, and smiled slightly. Who would have imagined it? Long he stood and gazed out over Harad's desert lands, and for the first time in three years, he found them beautiful.
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