Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Son of Harad: 8. Nausicaa's Tale
It was low tide. The waters splashed up against the smooth, grey pebbles, creeping up, sucked back. Rolling over each other in peaceful continuity, where the break in one wave and the beginning of the next could never be discerned. A chill, salty air. Seagulls circled overhead, cawing. The blurred sun; it was a misty day.
A group of young women were riding their horses down the beach, giggling at the sea spray, teasing each other with splashing gallops or joyous trots. They laughed and gossiped and talked idly. They spoke of the young suitors at their home, the manor of Celin Garth. They spoke of the next trip to Dol Amroth for the Mettarë festivities. They spoke of the changing seasons and the changing fashions.
Nausicaa, youngest of the group, was the daughter of the Lord of Pinnath Gelin. She rode with her cousins, Meril and Eirien, and her friends and attendants, Anteia and Aurë . They were all very young, with Nausicaa being a mere adolescent, only thirteen, and the oldest, her cousin Eirien, being a sheltered seventeen.
The beach was empty today. As autumn came and reddened the leaves of the oak trees, few came to enjoy the rocky shores and frigid water. It was hunting season – and so most men were in the hills, spying their game – while the women prepared their larders for the coming winter. But Nausicaa, like all rich, was idle. And so she had begged her mother to let her ride down to the shore today, just a quick ride, and without guard, for who should they come upon on such remote beaches?
Surprisingly, they did come upon someone.
As the girls rode, leading their horses into the shallow water, splashing, laughing and sometimes singing, the young maid, Anteia, spotted something.
“Oh! Look!” she cried.
The other girls stopped playing, urged their horses to still.
“What is it, Anteia?” Eirien asked.
“Look there, look yonder!” Anteia cried, pointing.
The other girls followed her gaze. Up ahead, right where the pebbles sloped gently upward and became dirt, there was a mound. A mound of grey and black and brown, with seaweed clinging to it. From this distance, the girls could not well see what it was, but instantly each heart was aflutter. Nausicaa immediately imagined it some sea monster washed ashore.
“Come!” she cried and urged her mare forwards.
Her companions hesitated but soon they were all cantering slowly up the bank towards the mound. As they approached, they began to recognize things – legs, arms, matted hair.
Meril gasped. “’Tis a man!”
They stood staring at this mysterious man for some time, studying him from afar. His clothes were tattered, his hair dirty. They saw that someone had wrapped him up in a blanket – an elven cloak, Nausicaa thought – and left beside him a water-skin and some food. There was also a small pouch, probably containing money, and a pack. A mantle had blown away in the wind and was lying half-wedged in the pack and half-strewn about the dirt. But who would sleep on the beach?
The man, indeed, seemed more than asleep. For a moment, the girls thought him dead, until they saw him shuddering as he inhaled.
Slowly, gingerly, quietly, Nausicaa dismounted. She crept forward. Her cousins and servants did the same, and soon all the girls came tiptoeing up, surrounding this sleeping figure.
He slept with his mouth open, Nausicaa noted with a smile. Sand-white thinning hair, shorn shorter than custom, damp with the sea mist, shifting in the breeze. A grey-white beard, scars, lines of age. Eyes glued shut. Chapped lips. A strong nose, strong jaw. The girls relaxed once they began recognizing the Gondorian traits. This was no Southron savage.
He was of heavy build, and at first, they thought him a peasant – a laborer of some sort – for his shoulders were muscular and his back was broad. But then they thought him a warrior – perhaps he was a soldier from Belfalas or Lamedon – for the scars and callused hands and the sheath at his side.
The girls stood, bending over him for quite some time, whispering amongst themselves. They wondered if he was in some fantastic sleep – induced by elf magic or Valar intervention. Indeed, he did not budge when they tested him with a stick.
“Perhaps he is dead.”
“Nay, look how he shivers in the cold.”
“Look there, Anteia, that is an elfish blanket, by my troth.”
“Try him again with the stick.”
Finally, with Meril performing the poke, jabbing him lightly in the ribs with a piece of driftwood, the man stirred.
The girls shrieked and scattered. Only Nausicaa remained, transfixed, watching this brine-soaked, sunburnt man awake. His eyes fluttered, sticking shut with salty crusts, until, with a groan, he brought his arm up and dragged it over his face. Nausicaa did not move, but hovered over him, studying. His eyes are the color of the sea. She smiled. She was beginning to like this man.
Once the man focused however, and saw her standing so close, he immediately started – jumping up with a cry, grabbing at his side and drawing a thin dagger with lightning speed. Nausicaa yelped and retreated quickly, but only a few steps away, for curiosity tempered her fear.
“Nay, stranger!” she cried, rapid-fire. “Put away your blade, I mean you no harm!”
The man immediately relented, calming, and sheathed his dagger.
“Forgive me,” he rasped. He cleared his throat. “You startled me.”
He seemed to stand on unsteady knees, for they wobbled and would not straighten as he looked about the rocky shore.
“Come, friends!” Nausicaa called, turning behind her and waving her arms. “Come, is this the way we greet weary travelers? Come, come! Do not fear!”
Slowly, one by one, the rest of the girls returned, leading their horses on with wary, frightened steps. The man’s marked features were a mix of amused fatigue.
“Welcome, stranger,” she said, assuming her most adult tone, “Welcome to the shores of Langstrand and the land of my people. You are nigh the Green Hills of Anfalas, and I am Nausicaa, daughter of Hirlaeg the Tall, Lord of Pinnath Gelin.”
The man bowed, slowly, stiffly.
“Well met, Nausicaa, daughter of… of Hirlaeg, Lord of Pinnath Gelin,” he repeated. She heard his accent. It sounded strange, almost mixed – like Minas Tirith nobles, or the Southron savages she heard in Dol Amroth’s court. “I am Amir, sailor and adraefan.” He looked about himself, swaying backward with the wind. She could see his legs trembling. “It seems they’ve left me.”
“Amir the adraefan,” Nausicaa said, bemused. It was a good name, an exciting name. She did not know what adraefan meant, but it sounded important, and she was beginning to like this man more and more. “From where did you set sail?”
All had come to listen now. Eirien and Meril whispered something amongst themselves. The poorer girls studied his clothes, his pouch, his dagger. All watched him wide-eyed as he swallowed, shuddering slightly when a cold wind passed.
“From Umbar, my lady,” he said hoarsely. “Though that was several years ago. And it has been a long time since I have been back on Gondorian shores.”
“Umbar!” Meril exclaimed.
“Umbar?” Anteia asked.
“Of the Corsairs, silly girl,” Nausicaa scoffed. She placed her hands on her hips. “Well, Amir the afraedan, come. You shall return with us to my father’s manor, Celin Garth. There you may have a hot bath and a hot meal and then tell us of your journeys.”
“I… thank you, my lady,” Amir said and bowed again, gingerly.
The girls looked at each other apprehensively, and Nausicaa huffed.
“Anteia, Aurë, you will take his things,” she ordered. The older girls hastened to grab his pack and pouch. Nausicaa looked at Amir. “And you shall ride with me.”
Amir raised his eyebrows but offered no objection. Yet as he took his first hobbling steps, he winced and hesitated.
“My lady, perhaps it is better if I…?” he began, faltering.
“We cannot allow you to ride alone, Amir,” Nausicaa said flatly. “For you shall make off with one of the horses. Come, I do not fear you. ‘Tis a short ride, not more than an hour.”
She mounted, eyeing the girls until they too mounted. Amir relented, nodded, and, with visible discomfort, pulled himself into the saddle, squeezing in behind her. He seemed to fumble with his hands for a moment, unsure where to place them, until she grabbed them – leathery, callused, old – and placed them firmly on her waist. And so they were off, clopping slowly for a moment and then, at Nausicaa’s urging, breaking out into a full gallop down the beach.
They rode for some time, Nausicaa’s enthusiasm for this strange man spurring her on faster, faster. They rode up the winding path which led zigzagging up, away from the beach, up the steep incline of the jagged precipice and out onto the open fields of Pinnath Gelin. They began taking the usual route home, but eventually Nausicaa’s impatience won through, and so they cut across the rolling hills, up, down, up, down, until they could see Celin Garth gleaming in the distance.
It was an ancient manor, wrought of stone and wood, with trees hugging its southern edge and a wide expanse on all other sides. There was some traffic by the stables, Nausicaa could see her father’s riding party had returned from the hunt. She could also see smoke billowing from the manor’s largest chimney.
Nausicaa called over her shoulder, “Look yonder, Amir! ‘Tis my father’s estate! We are nearly there!”
She urged the horse on faster, and soon they were barreling past the stables, over the short bridge and up to the main door, spraying gravel. Servants were already rushing out, ready to greet this returning group. Yet all stopped short once they saw Amir.
Nausicaa waited for him to dismount, and he did so, with a weary grunt and slow movements. Once he was off, she slung her leg over and hopped down. The other girls dismounted, and they placed Amir’s things on the ground uncertainly. Meanwhile, all the servants were just standing there, staring.
She turned. Her father and brothers were approaching, all hurrying forward, for they too had spotted the group crowding around the front door. Hirlaeg, silver-white-haired, bearded, tall and thin, came striding forward. He had long since grown half-blind due to a cataract and an accident years ago with one of the horses which had blinded his left eye entirely, and he was squinting now, holding his spectacles up with one hand.
“You cannot ride like that, my girl,” he chided. “’Tis reckless to gallop so! Poor Gwaelín will twist her ankle – ”
“I was in great haste, father! Look!” Nausicaa exclaimed, eager to show off her discovery. She grabbed his arm and led him to Amir, who had been lingering, rather uncomfortably, by the horses. “Father, look! I present to you Amir, sailor and drefaenen from Umbar!”
“Eh? Amir? Umbar? Draef – what? What nonsense is this?” her father asked, but gasped once he saw the strange man. He squinted, peering close. “Who…?”
“We found him on the beach,” Nausicaa explained, beaming.
Her father looked Amir up and down, prominent nose scrunched, and immediately beckoned two servants forth. “Indeed, indeed. My eyes may be near useless, but I see well enough that this poor man is in need of some help. Amir, you say? That is a Haradrim name, is it not?”
“Aye, my lord,” Amir replied. “Though I am called by many names.”
“Ah, indeed, for your looks are more Northern than Southron, by my troth. Well come, come inside and then with a bath and a meal in you, we shall hear what brings you to our fair country.”
And so they all urged Amir inside, the servants carrying his things, leading him into the great manor. Nausicaa followed them past the tall antechamber, passing the rows and rows of tapestries depicting Pinnath Gelin’s history. Down the main hall, up the stairs, turning right at the corridor, and soon Nausicaa was pushed away, for the servants would take care of the rest. She peeked through the door, saw the brass tub being dragged along, and was unceremoniously pushed away by the nursemaid as the door slammed shut.
Once bathed and clothed in a spare set of servant’s garments, Amir joined them at dinner. Clean and dressed, he seemed much more handsome than before – Nausicaa thought – if still somewhat grizzled.
They had dinner in the main hall, as usual, and the servants placed an extra set of cutlery and plates at one end of the table for the guest. As she always did, Nausicaa sat across from her four older brothers, with the two wives of the oldest ones beside her. Her father sat at the head of the table, with his deaf mother sitting where Mother used to sit. To Nausicaa’s left, her cousins, Eirien and Meril sat. And all this crowd, this long table, watched the stranger approach, being led into the hall by the elderly manservant.
Amir walked with a limp. Nausicaa saw his inability to fully straighten or bend his knees, she heard his slight hiss as he took his seat.
Everyone was silent, just staring. Nausicaa saw her oldest brother, Galudîr, staring with an open mouth. Next to Galudîr, his wife, Gwaloth, was pretending not to look. The next oldest son, Manadhír, was also not so overt in his curiosity – though Nausicaa still sighed irritably at how obvious it was that they rarely had visitors. Manadhír’s wife, Luindî, was tittering on with Nausicaa’s oldest cousin, Eirien. Then, the next two brothers – Maerdír and Enedhír – sixteen and seventeen and, Nausicaa thought, incorrigible – were whispering amongst themselves and chuckling. Nausicaa wished the youngest son was here, her favorite brother, but Claurion would not be returning home again until the New Year. She missed Claurion terribly.
Meanwhile, the table was set. Meats, bread, cooked vegetables. Steaming soup, roast venison. Wine and water.
“Eat and drink, please,” Hirlaeg said, raising his goblet and breaking the quiet. He smiled. “There shall be time for questions later, let us first put aside our more pressing needs.”
They toasted, muttering, all still watching Amir, and began to eat.
The man was obviously famished. Nausicaa kept glancing at her father – yet he sent her warning looks, raising his spectacles to his eyes and shaking his head slightly. Questions would be asked later, once this new Amir was suitably comfortable. These were the basic rules of hospitality, as Nausicaa was constantly reminded. And so she bit her lip and watched this strange man eat quickly, frantically, clumsily, with generous swallows of wine. Everyone else picked at their food, too curious to eat.
Once the sunburnt Amir had finished his second helping of everything, and his fourth or fifth – Nausicaa had lost count – goblet of wine, he leaned back, stifled a belch. Immediately, Hirlaeg leaned forward.
“So,” Hirlaeg began, smiling, “tell us, stranger, who you are and where you come from. You are our first visitor in years and so I apologize if our manners are somewhat rustic and our stares somewhat frank. Please, tell us everything. My daughter tells me you are of Umbar, and earlier you spoke of many names. What leads you to our fair country?”
Amir glanced around at the company of listeners, at his audience – twelve in all, though the grandmother was deaf – and he seemed to hesitate, almost shy.
“Well, my lord,” he said slowly, “first I must thank you for your hospitality. For twenty years have I traveled the lands, from the deserts of deepest Harad to the snows of Forochel, and I have ne’er met such kind and generous hosts.”
Everyone smiled at this. Murmurs of approval.
“My name is Amir,” he continued. “Though, as I said, I have many names – and in each realm, in each kingdom, they have called me in their own tongue. Naegadan I am in the far North, where it is e’er cold. Reviamîr to those on the Sea. Gaeldîr to the Easterling savages, and Scriþanrinc to the horse-tamers of Rohan. But Amir I am in hot Harad lands, and that is where my heart lies, and so that is the name I now carry.”
And what name was he born with? Nausicaa wondered.
“My travels brought me to your shores, my lord,” he went on, “for these last few years I have spent e’er on the sea, yet these adventures came to a rather abrupt end ten days ago as my ship was sunk in a great storm and all my companions lost. An elven ship found me, several days after the storm had beaten all the good souls down. I had tied myself to a piece of the deck, in hopes that I would stay afloat e’en as I did swoon. Just so, the elves found me, and they did deposit me here, on your shores, while I still slept.”
“Yet you are not of Umbar,” Hirlaeg said, leaning forward to squint and try to see Amir better. “For, if my poor eyes do not deceive me, you have the look of a Gondorian through and through.”
“Aye, that I am,” Amir said, flashing a brilliant smile. Everyone fell silent. “In Gondor was I born, many years ago.” He paused, gaze flickering to the empty goblet resting by his hand. “I was born outside the city of Dol Amroth, nigh the Dorn-en-Ernil hills…”
And so Amir’s life story began. Never once did he mention the name he was born with, which irritated Nausicaa to some extent, though no one else seemed to notice the omission. Instead, Amir wove for them a story – and they learned of a poor sailor from Dol Amroth who had been falsely accused of thievery back in the days before the War. The punishment had been exile, and Amir had spent several years wandering the Belfalas coast until he had fallen upon a group of criminal elves – everyone gasped at this; I’ve never known of criminal elves! Nausicaa frowned – who robbed him of his coin and enslaved him. Far into the North these evil elves had led him, nigh the Ice Bay of Forochel, until he had managed to escape by serving them a potent wine and then stealing away into the night.
Nausicaa looked around; everyone was listening in rapt attention.
Amir continued… Once away from the elves – where he had thought only to steal an extra cloak and a pouch of coins – Amir had wandered far, lost in the icy northern wastelands. He suffered from the freezing sickness, where one’s limbs turn black with cold and can fall away as easily as a dry branch – at this, pale-faced Gwaloth set down her fork, clattering, while Maerdír and Enedhír snorted with laughter. Apparently Amir had nearly lost three fingers – he held them up to show – and had been forced to eat the raw meat of whatever frozen wolves he could find in the snow.
Finally, a wizard – Radagast the Brown – and his owl had found Amir, just as the man had nearly frozen to death, and his hands and feet and nose had turned a sickly black. Together, Radagast and the owl had taken Amir to the wizard’s home in Eryn Lasgalen, and there the wizard had tended to his illness.
Once he had been well enough, Amir had thanked the wizard and had begun his journey East. There was a great desert past the Sea of Rhûn, apparently, and here Amir had lost himself in the grey bleakness. For it is not a desert as you and I would imagine, with sand and sun and no water. Nay, the Ceosolstów is a barren land – where all is grey and dusty, and there are murky pools from which to drink. I know not whether the pools harbored some foul poison, but after several days wandering in this great, empty landscape, I began to drink from them. And it was then that the lands began to crack, and the Men of Stone appeared…
For hours, Amir spoke, unraveling his tales to the eager audience. The candles burned down to waxy stubs, the serving-maids swept in and out, carrying away the empty platters and used glasses, bringing out the fine Pinnath Gelin brandy which Hirlaeg, Galudîr, Manadhír, and Amir gladly accepted. And even in this tardy hour, no one sent the youngest – Nausicaa, Eirien, Meril – away. Rather, everyone remained – all the children and adults – listening to these fantastical adventures.
Eventually, however, just as Amir was speaking of the cannibals in the East, he came to a pause in his tale, and asked to continue tomorrow, for tonight he had grown weary.
“Aye, aye, of course,” Hirlaeg hastened. He began to stand, and everyone followed suit, Amir last of all because of his knees. “Forgive us, but your tales are truly wondrous! And what was it? All for stealing a loaf of bread? Bah! It comes as no surprise that Imrahil’s father should have denied a hungry man his food – greedy as they are in Belfalas – and, to think, such a punishment! A life of wandering! Never would a Pinnath Gelin lord commit such injustices, I can assure you that…”
And as her father grumbled to himself, earning the usual nods of agreement from her older brothers – while the younger two laughed and chatted amongst themselves, and everyone else was preparing to leave for bed – Nausicaa piped up:
“Father, I thought Amir said he stole a pound of flour, not a loaf of bread.”
Hirlaeg, flushed and straining to see, began backing away from the chair, careful not knock anything over. “What, my girl?”
Amir had gone rigidly still.
“I said,” Nausicaa began, “I thought it was a pound of flour that Amir stole, not a loaf of bread. At least,” she turned to the stranger, “that is what you said in the beginning. Though, later you began saying it was a loaf of bread.”
For this, Nausicaa received a sharp pinch from someone standing behind her – she imagined it was her eldest brother’s wife – and someone else hissed, “Nausicaa, be polite.”
“Nay, forgive me,” Amir said. “Perhaps… I – I am fatigued, so I may have said flour where I meant bread. In truth, ‘tis a rather pointless detail since – ”
“So you meant bread in the beginning?”
Amir stared. “Aye. I meant bread.”
“Forgive us, kind Amir,” Hirlaeg said quickly. “My youngest has e’er been slow to grasp the proper etiquette of her station – ” Nausicaa gasped, offended, “ – but she will learn to behave properly. Tomorrow, Nausicaa, I want you to stay inside and take your lessons with Gwaloth. For it seems you are in need of them!”
“What? Nay!” Nausicaa burst. “I was to ride tomorrow! I was to go riding! That isn’t fair!”
Her older brothers - Maerdír and Enedhír – began snickering, and she stormed over to pinch Maerdír in the arm.
“Ai! She pinched me! Father!”
Hirlaeg gave a long-suffering sigh, shook his head. He raised his hand, and everyone fell silent. Nausicaa was breathing heavily.
“We shall discuss no more of this. It is time for bed, and our guest is weary; tomorrow perhaps Amir shall tell us more of his tales, if you children do not sour him completely and force him to leave ere the day is done.”
Amir laughed softly at this. “Nay, do not worry, my lord.” Everyone turned to look at him. “There shall be tales tomorrow, if they wish it.”
“Aye, we do!” Little Meril exclaimed.
“I want to hear more about the Eastern cannibals,” Enedhír said.
“And also all this of the Haradwaith,” Gwaloth smiled.
“There? See?” Hirlaeg said, looking at the family. “I have found for you all a story-teller and what do you do?” He looked at Nausicaa. “You pester him with the minutiae! Now, enough bickering. Tomorrow we shall continue with the excitement, very well? Very well. Goodnight, to all of you.”
There was a chorus of goodnights, and soon everyone was shuffling off, away from the dining hall, up the stairs, down corridors, to all the various wings and rooms of the manor. Nausicaa lingered with a scowl, watching her father raise his spectacles to leave the room. And she turned just in time to see two serving-maids beckon Amir forth, leading him to the guestroom in the eastern wing.
Hidden in the shadows, Nausicaa tiptoed. It was late. Everyone was asleep. She could hear nothing but the occasional snore, shifting blankets, creaking floorboards as she walked quietly down the corridor. Outside, the moon waxed full, illuminating the rolling hills of Pinnath Gelin. She passed the large window where the corridor ended and became the landing for the great stairwell. The wide window, the heavy drapes. Checking to see that no one else was awake, and none of the servants were around, Nausicaa bunched up her too-long nightgown and walked, barefoot, up the ice-cold stone stairwell. Her steps were shuffling softly against the granules in the stone, and so she took to the carpet, padding quickly.
The next level. The corridor of guestrooms. There was an ancient suit of armor – belonging to one of her ancestors, perhaps the first lord of the Green Hills – and she could not help hurrying past it, since it had always frightened her. And so she walked down this pitch-black corridor, running her hand against the wall, listening intently for any sound.
Finally, after turning the corner, she saw a faint light coming from down the hallway. She walked quietly – I am a mouse, I am a mouse, I am a mouse – holding her nightgown before her so that it would not get caught on anything or drag against the ground. And, as she approached, she saw that the flickering light came from the last guestroom, and the door had been left ajar.
She approached the wall, crept along it. Once she was perhaps ten paces from the door, she went on hands and knees, began shuffling on all fours very slowly, softly, carefully, keeping her left side squished up against the stone wall beside her.
She heard creaking footsteps. She heard a glass clink. The glug of liquid. Silence, and then a soft exhalation. Slowly, slowly, slowly, Nausicaa placed her bare palms before her on the stone floor, leaned forward, peeked through the crack in the door and saw this:
Amir, leaning back, glass in hand, finishing it. Torso nude – so that Nausicaa nearly pulled away, flushed and giggling – and, in the flickering candlelight, he faced away from her, so that she saw zigzagging lines striping across the broad back. Scars. Nausicaa had seen scars like those on slaves, or criminals. Had they whipped Amir ere they exiled him?
She watched as he placed the glass down next to the thick, square bottle of Pinnath Gelin brandy. And he stood there, face in shadow, half turned away from her, staring down at the bottle and glass, considering. After a moment of pensive silence, where Nausicaa had to hold her breath so as not to be heard, Amir took the bottle, tipped a little more into the glass. He paused a moment, eventually poured a full glass. He raised this, drank.
But the dust from the corridor carpet was tickling Nausicaa’s nose. She scrunched her face, closed her eyes tight, held her breath. But the unbearable tickling continued. With a stifled curse, she sneezed.
And immediately she heard a glass being set down, and steps. Unthinking, she crouched forward, hid her face with her arms. The door opened, she could see the light flash – filtering through the bottom of her sleeve, hitting the stone. And then she saw feet, and the edge of sleeping pants. She knew she looked foolish, but her heart was thundering madly, and her body was not responding to her commands – Go! Go! Flee! Instead, she remained like that, on elbows and knees, covering her head. Frozen.
“’Tis late to be spying, don’t you think so?”
Nausicaa raised her head meekly. And she saw a towering form: Amir, one hand on his hip, another scratching his beard thoughtfully. Her tongue was stuck in her throat.
“Do you wish to crouch so all night?”
Amir bent down, offered his hand and helped her up. She was trembling with fright and emotion now, and he grinned crookedly. Without a word, he reentered his room, while she remained hovering in the doorway uncertainly. He turned.
“Your father would be angry if I told him.” He looked her up and down. “How old are you?”
“And are you not frightened by me?”
Here, Nausicaa smiled. Amir snatched a shirt from the back of a chair, pulled it on. He winced as he did so, and then, once it was on, massaged his left shoulder with his right hand. She watched him, curiosity taking over from fear. And he sat heavily in the chair by the small table, began to pour himself a third drink. His eyes were glazed.
“Well?” he asked.
“Nay,” Nausicaa said, grinning slightly. “Nay, I’m not frightened.”
He returned the smile.
“I didn’t think so.”
There was a pause. Nausicaa watched him drink.
“Are you going to invite me in, or shall I stand here all night?” she asked, shifting her weight.
With raised eyebrows, he raised his hand, beckoned her inside. And so she entered, taking a few steps in, looking around the room. And she saw his clothes strewn about the bed, and a dagger and a whetstone against the table, by the brandy bottle, and a roll of linen set against the other chair.
She stood in the center of the room, looking around, until she turned her attention back to Amir. He was watching her with an amused look on his face. They did not speak at first, but watched each other, until finally she put her hands on her hips, frowned.
“I know you’re lying, you know.”
“About what you told us tonight.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Aye. Because you kept getting mixed up, with your dates and things. And the more you drank, the more the story started to change, and become stranger. And I don’t believe in any of it, anyway. It’s all a fiction, I think.”
“Not all of it.”
“Well, what was the name your father gave you?”
Amir tilted his head back, swallowed the entire glassful. With a voice still hoarse from the brandy, he said, “You would not believe me if I told you.”
“Probably not,” she admitted.
He chuckled. And he motioned with his hand for her to sit. She smiled a little, went to the other chair, placed the roll of linen on the table, and sat across from him. From this close, she could smell the drink and the sea and the sweat – all the lingering scents – on him. The candlelight flickered.
“If I promise not to tell anyone, will you tell me the truth?”
He watched her for several long moments. And then, moving to take the bottle again, he poured. And he nodded. “Aye.”
“Are you really from Gondor?”
“And have you really been to any of those places?”
“I have been to all of them.”
She watched him, skeptical, but he merely drank, meeting her eyes.
“What are those lines on your back?”
His expression darkened as he set the glass down. “What do you think?”
“Were you a slave?”
She paused, considering. “Did you fight in the Great War?”
“Is that where all the scars come from?”
“Not all of them. Some.”
“My uncle, Hirluin the Fair, fought in the Great War. He even fought in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. That is where he fell.”
Amir swallowed more brandy. “I know.”
“You knew him?”
She considered this for a moment. But then, she squinted, watched him strangely.
“My father cannot see well… but, if he had his sight, would he recognize you?”
Amir smiled slightly. “Perhaps.”
And Nausicaa watched this man, this scarred stranger, with his heavy-hooded, glittering eyes, and his sand-white hair and thick beard and low voice, and she felt a smile creep across her lips. For she had never known such a figure – why, he was like a figure out of legend! – and the mystery of his origins was a delight to her.
“Why did you say your heart is in Harad?”
“Because that is where my wife and son are.”
“You have a son?”
“How old is he?”
“He is older than you. He is fifteen.”
“What’s his name?”
“Qudamah,” she repeated, thinking. She was about to ask what had happened, why he had left them, why he was here and not there, with his wife and son, but she saw that he watched her, wary, almost as if he was expecting that question. His shoulders were tense, and he had stopped tracing the patterns on the glass.
“And your wife? What is her name?”
He relaxed. “Munirah.”
“I like that name.”
He smiled. “I do too.”
“Will you tell me your real name now?”
There was a pause. The flickering light, darkening. Silence outside. Amir began to run his hand over his beard, scratching, eyes roaming the room. Finally, he looked Nausicaa in the eye.
“My name is Boromir.”
“Oh,” Nausicaa said simply. “Like Boromir the Mad, then?”
Amir frowned. “Aye. Like Boromir the Mad…”
Nausicaa studied him for a moment, and then her eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. Nay, he meant that Boromir! He was watching her with a sort of self-conscious humor. She gaped for a few moments – closing her mouth, opening it, closing it again.
“You mean, you…? You’re…?” she breathed. “Nay, I don’t believe you…”
“It seems that you do.”
“But they said Boromir the Mad died years ago!”
“Who says that?”
“Everyone! Or they say he went East, and was never heard from again! And then there is the story that he was killed far north, crushed by the Valar, because they hated him! They say he went mad in the Black Land and then disappeared!”
He scowled. “Well, perhaps that is all true, in a way.”
“Nay, but – I – nay!” She fumbled for a moment before exclaiming, “You’re – you’re too old!”
He laughed loudly, harshly, at this – and she saw he was missing two teeth – the first molars by the left canine. And once she noticed this, she began to see how he would run his tongue over the gap as he thought, or as he listened. He was doing that now, watching her with laughing eyes, leaning forward on one elbow, cheeks hollow.
“I ne’er said I was an elf,” he said humorously. “All men age.”
“Oh! Oh, but then – if you’re – if you really are – then you know the elves! The Exiled Elves!”
“My first nursemaid – she was of Minas Tirith – she told me that story – is it true they wandered the lands for thousands of years?”
“Aye. Since the days of Isildur.”
“And is it true you stopped the Easterling army?”
“Nay,” Amir said flatly. “That is an exaggeration.”
Nausicaa laughed, shook her head, giddy. She jumped up from her seat, held her hair. Amir watched her with raised eyebrows.
“Oh! But this is wonderful! You’ve come back! You’ve finally come back!”
“Shhh,” he waved his hand. “’Tis not something I desire announced.”
She lowered her voice to a whisper, “Why not?” She gasped. “Are you going to usurp the crown?”
“Nay,” he scoffed. “Don’t be silly.”
“Oh, but I am silly, and you’re Boromir the Mad returned from his adventures! This is so exciting! And no one will believe me when I tell them! Oh! But don’t worry, Boromir, I’ll not tell a soul – you have my promise. I mean, you have my promise if…”
Amir, who had been fluctuating between wide-eyed shock to sagging relief, looked at her sharply.
“If?” he asked.
“If…” she danced on her heels for a moment, thinking, laughing and smiling, “If… you tell me all that really happened – and you must hold nothing back! Nothing! Tell me everything! I want to know this Haradrim love story, and I want to know what Qudamah looks like, and what the elves said and did – and – and I want – ”
“Those are not tales for children,” Amir interrupted, scowling.
“Well, if you don’t tell me, then I shall go downstairs this instant and wake my father and bring him here, and I shall tell him you are Boromir the Mad.”
“He wouldn’t believe you.” The man said this evenly, yet his eyes flickered, and he began to shift his weight.
Nausicaa took a step towards the door. “Shall we try?”
“No!” Amir said, nearly raising himself from his seat. She stopped, smiled, and he sank back down into his chair. He spent a few moments nervously tugging at his beard, tonguing the gap in his teeth, glaring at her. She returned the glare with a beaming smile.
“I did not think one so young knew how to blackmail.”
“What is blackmail?”
Amir scoffed, shook his head. “Nothing…” He threw up his hand. “Very well. So be it. You have ensnared me,” Nausicaa beamed, “but,” and here Amir raised a finger, “there are certain things which I will not tell you – for I have told not one person on this Middle-earth – nor shall I ever – and a man has a right to his heart’s privacy.”
Nausicaa curtsied. “But of course, kind sir.”
He rolled his eyes. And she watched him run a weary hand over his face, bemused, until they met eyes again. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms.
“Well?” he asked.
“Shall be begin tonight, or tomorrow? It seems I am at your mercy.”
“Tomorrow,” she said easily. “For tonight,” she stretched her arms to make her point, “I am tired.”
“As am I.”
“Well then goodnight, Boromir.”
Rolling green hills. Trees, here and there; a sparse wood. The ground was littered with fallen leaves, and a chill wind rattled the branches of the trees. In the distance, the manor of Celin Garth could be seen perched on one of the sun-drenched hills. It had been three days since the stranger had arrived and Nausicaa had become positively prized among her brothers. Earlier that morning, the two Troublemakers, Maerdír and Enedhír, had asked her everything she knew of this Amir – for they had heard he was telling her secret stories on the side. But she kept her promise to Amir – to Boromir, rather – and so told them to mind their own business and go away.
Well, she did tell one person that Amir was really Boromir the Mad. But the elderly cook had simply laughed and shaken her head, muttering that Nausicaa was such a silly girl, sometimes.
In the evenings after supper, Boromir would tell them stories – and Nausicaa delighted in them, if always questioning one or two points. The man would sit by the hearth, a glass of brandy ever-present in his hand, and he would gesticulate wildly, laugh, roar, tease them with hints of much greater things. The first night, the children had all gone to the parlor, with the adults hovering by, finding excuses to rearrange paperweights or study music sheets by the harp, pretending not to listen. By the third evening, the notion of formality dissolved, and everyone came to hear, including Lord Hirlaeg. And the adults asked just as many questions as the children, so that sometimes Boromir was forced to simply answer the endless stream.
Today, Boromir and her father had gone riding. They had intended to follow the two elder sons’ riding party south to the Celin Wood, and there they would leave the group and ride the length of Celin Garth’s land, following the forest’s border. Nausicaa knew that her father always did this when he intended to discuss important matters – and it seemed that since Boromir had expressed his desire to continue on his journeys, Hirlaeg was probably debriefing the man on all that had changed in Gondor.
Indeed, she found them a league from the manor, trotting along slowly, immersed in conversation. She came barreling down the woods, pushing Gwaelin to a hasty gallop, before pulling the reins so that the horse bucked back, neighed, startling the two other horses and riders.
“Nausicaa!” Hirlaeg exclaimed. “Sweet Valar, child, do you intend to knock us off our mounts with these wild flourishes?”
Nausicaa laughed, her brown mare dancing underneath her. “Nay! I just wanted to hear what you’re talking about.”
At this, Boromir smiled, though Hirlaeg rolled his eyes.
“Nothing that would interest a silly girl, my dear,” Hirlaeg huffed. “We are speaking of adult matters. And what of your lessons with that Lamedon woman?”
“I finished them! May I ride with you? Please, father…”
Hirlaeg cast Boromir a long-suffering look, and the latter grinned slightly. “If the lady wishes.”
And so, Hirlaeg reluctantly accepted her company – chiding her to keep up and stay with them and remain silent – and the group of three went cantering along Celin Wood’s wide lane. For a little while, Nausicaa simply watched the trees pass – the wild apple trees, the tall oaks and elms – or she studied Boromir and her father as they spoke. Boromir shot her humorous scowls, and she returned his looks.
“…but ‘tis likely the ambassador from Umbar will be reluctant to accept any pacts ere they hear from their Haradrim friends,” Hirlaeg was saying. “Twenty years since the tides of war have receded, and Gondor has near doubled in size. Yet what have we claimed? Wastelands, Amir, nothing more. The lands of South Gondor are desert – useful only should we cultivate any further trade with the Haradrim people, though the tensions since the last skirmish have not yet eased.
“Speak with the Minas Tirith court and they shall tell you we must set our eyes to the Northern-kingdom – but apart from encouraging a few adventurous sorts to venture so far, ‘twill be another twenty year ere we have more than a minor colony there. I know not how Elessar thinks to govern two kingdoms when he is yet without heir… though, aye, he may feel no urgency, half-elfish as he is…”
Boromir smiled slightly. As Hirlaeg’s last phrase trailed, he interjected, “But do they intend to bring Umbar under Gondor’s rule?”
Hirlaeg chuckled. “Aye, though they will not say it – and that is not what the papers say. However, aye, there is an implicit desire to make Umbar our protectorate.” He sighed. “Which is why this council will come to nothing, I feel. A land so small and barren as Umbar, wedged as it is between two competing peoples, to have survived so long… ‘tis not just trade, Amir, nay. The governors of Umbar are a ruthless sort – it must be the Usurper’s blood,” Boromir snorted, “but their ways of political maneuvering are not like ours. Nay… they may lie, and cheat, and deceive as easily as a merchant in the common market. There is no honor there.”
“Perhaps, then,” Boromir ventured, “it is all about trade, as you say. They will see which side offers them the better price.”
“Indeed. Would that our relations with Harad were not so strained, and we could guess that price. What little we hear of the Southron lands is contradictory and vague – why, I have learned more about Harad from your tales, Amir, than any Swerting emissary!” Both men laughed. “Nonetheless, Imrahil of Dol Amroth – paranoid as ever – fears that any quick solution in Umbar will lead to outright aggression – either from the Corsairs or from Harad herself. Though, in truth,” Hirlaeg shrugged, “I know not why Imrahil fears so. The Corsair fleet has never recovered since Pelargir, and, from what I have heard, the Haradrim army is equally subdued. ‘Twould gain them nothing to reopen war relations with Gondor – mighty as we are.”
This last phrase Hirlaeg said with a slight tongue-in-cheek, so that Boromir cocked an eyebrow. “But did you not say Gondor’s attentions are divided in all directions save the sea?”
“Aye!” Hirlaeg said, clearly grateful at being read correctly. “Aye! Gondor is spread too thin, by my troth! We have Gondorians now as far north as that half-people land, seeing to those Arnor ruins. Ithilien has been replanted, and the Lord Steward wishes to begin the reclaiming of Minas Ithil and the foul Mordor lands…”
Nausicaa saw Boromir’s knuckles grow white with strain, his eyes darting away. So that is one of the secret stories.
“…there are even talks of Rhûn!” Hirlaeg continued, not seeing this. “Can you think of that? Rhûn! What in the name of the Valar does Gondor need there? What shall we do there? Go chase after the gods’ cattle? Why, leave the East to the dwarfs and troll-people – aye, leave it to your cannibals, Amir – that is what I say.” The man sighed. “Over-spread as we are, I fear that Imrahil, in his endless agitation, may be correct in one respect… for should a worthy enough foe strike us now, it could be our undoing. Ha! And then all of this great empire would unravel as easily as a loosely-knitted scarf!” Hirlaeg laughed harshly, shook his head. And he turned to Nausicaa, “Speaking of which, my girl, you do have your mother's scarf, don't you?”
Nausicaa gasped, reached for her neck, found it bare. For a moment, she saw her father’s face deepen to a fierce red as he watched her fumble. Oh no! Mother’s scarf! But, thankfully, she found the green garment stuffed into the saddlebag by her thigh. She ripped it out, held it up for her father to see – though she doubted he could see more than a greenish blur against the generally green forest background.
Hirlaeg squinted, and then nodded curtly. He waved his finger at Nausicaa. “That was your mother’s gift to you, Nausicaa, I will not have you lose it – ”
“I know, father. I won’t lose it.”
“Hmm. I should hope not,” he turned his attentions back to Boromir. “Of course, there is no such foe – unless the elves decide to wage war on us, which is somewhat unlikely.” Hirlaeg stopped, smiled. “Bah! Enough of this. You hear the talk of an embittered old man, Amir. You may have missed the worst of the War – perhaps your exile was a blessing in that sense – but we are nonetheless of the same generation, with the same manners, aye? These younger men – why, they are so eager to see these new lands, to stake the White Tree in the ground at every scrap of dirt they find, one would think they knew what it cost to have defended this land! To have earned it! Oh, but they don’t know, nay. How could they? They see only what we managed to save for them – bah! I still remember the days when one did not so much as plan a fortnight in advance for fear that the Mordor legions would trample everything ere morning! These young men, this new generation, they cannot conceive of it, ‘tis impossible for them… They see only hope, and childish optimism.” He scowled. “They have never tasted war, never seen their friends die around them – ”
“Would you want us to, father?” Nausicaa interrupted.
Both men turned to look at her. And Hirlaeg’s expression softened, and he smiled. He reached over, and she took his hand as it fumbled blindly, and pressed it to her cheek. He brushed his thumb, awkward, against her cheekbone.
“Nay, my dear,” he said. “Never.”
Two days later, loaded with gifts of the house, food from the kitchens, numerous solemn kisses and polite bows, Boromir left them. The man thanked them, visibly grateful, and promised to return. Hirlaeg had presented him one of his own horses – to urge you home, my friend – and, that dawn, everyone gathered at the front of Celin Garth to see Boromir off. And just before leading his horse away, Boromir and Nausicaa met eyes – and he winked with a grin – while she smiled broad, waved.
A few minutes after he had disappeared down the road, and everyone was shuffling back into the house, Nausicaa strode past Maerdír and Enedhír, smiling proudly.
“What are you preening on about?”
“I wager you two don’t know who just left the manor of Celin Garth.”
“Aye, course we do. Amir the afrea - afraenedan.”
“Nay. ‘Twas Boromir the Mad.”
The two brothers watched her for a moment, confused, but then comprehension dawned, and, wide-eyed, they formed identically round Os with their lips. Nausicaa smiled.
And Enedhír turned to Maerdír, punched him in the arm. “I told you!”
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