Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Son of Harad: 9. The Tales of Umbar
It was better being alone. Without Sepya, Qudamah realized he felt freer, stronger, truer to himself. The noblemen, the suffocating hierarchy and jostling classes, the strangeness of the foreign Haradrim realms – all of this had wormed away at Qudamah’s resolve back in the days when he had traveled with the army, and yet he realized this only in his journeys to Umbar, when he suddenly saw how easy it was to eat, to drink, to sleep. For there was no longer that restricting self-loathing mingled with pride which prohibited him from acting freely – where he found himself constantly observed, and he ever felt the weight of his inferiority in their eyes.
Instead, the weeks he spent from Dashmir-of-Ghibli up into Umbar and to the City of the Corsairs were the happiest he had had since his early childhood. And even though his stomach always fluttered when he thought of his father, and his heart always sank when he thought of his mother, nonetheless there was no one to see it – and he was free. Free to rise at dawn, and guide his horse around the stunning mountains of southern Umbar, the red, jagged lands – filled with caves – harsh and beautiful.
And he would explore these caves, lighting a bramble with some flint, leaving the horse outside. And sometimes he would find skulls and skeletons littering the cave floor – men, khemil, horses. And sometimes he would find paintings on the inner walls – coarse figures, the scenery of Umbar – those early paintings of the tribal peoples.
When he had left Sepya in Dashmir, he had been frightened. He had stolen a pouch of money from the Aajej man’s horse at dawn on the day he left, and he had then mounted Saad and gone trotting away towards Dashmir’s Northern Gate.
And he had feared this solitude – thinking it would intensify his grief, his loneliness.
Yet the twenty days he spent traveling alone were the days when he felt his mother was nearest. And sometimes, when leaving the caves and returning to Saad, who waited patiently outside, Qudamah would weep hot tears – the first tears he had shed for her since the afternoon of her death – and the horse would nuzzle him. And he would laugh with mingled sobs, pushing Saad away.
He felt as if his mother saw him, saw him clearly, wherever he was, and he thought much on her as he rode through the nights and lounged, half-sleeping, during the day.
Mostly, he slept in the afternoons. At first, he would sleep deep in the caves, but he stopped doing this when, on one occasion, he had lost himself in the labyrinth inside and had come stumbling out hours later, near-frantic and panicking, when the moon was high. From that day on, he slept only several feet within the caves, from a spot where the air still smelled like the desert and he could see the bright opening nearby and hear Saad snorting.
Sometimes, as he traveled during the nights, he would pretend he was in one of the Abbas races his father used to take him to see. And he would urge Saad faster, faster, faster – galloping, galloping – so that sand sprayed behind them, and Qudamah laughed and screamed his delight to the stars, and Saad would begin braying his annoyance at being forced to run where a trot would suffice. Other times, Qudamah would sing to himself as he rode – he would sing the songs his mother had taught him, all religious songs to the One and the Powers – and he would sing to the god of the desert, that cherished god, and he would sing to the god of the sun, laughing as he invented new lyrics.
Every midday, he dismounted and rested. It was impossible to travel through the desert at noon, since it was either too hot, or one could lose their direction and get lost. This happened in the patches where there was no physical marker – where it was only the dunes. And so every midday, Qudamah would spend the hour on his back, his feet pointing northwest, up to the City of the Corsairs, his head pointed southeast, back to Beshabar. A few times, he simply counted the minutes as they passed, but he stopped doing that because he learned to judge when the shadows of his sandals and arms and elbows had shifted enough to indicate he could continue.
On the early morning of the twenty-first day, he caught a glint of blinding sunlight on the horizon. The wide, blue sea. Urging Saad into a galloping run, cresting the tallest dune, there it was: the City of the Corsairs – the famous port of Umbar. And Qudamah began to see domed Haradrim temples, the spires and bell-towers of Gondorian buildings, the masts – like tiny sticks – of the ships docked in the harbor. And, looking further, he saw the great Bay of Umbar, stretching wide – enormous! – and he could see the tiny white sails of ships leaving or entering the port. And, despite himself, he laughed.
Everything in the City of the Corsairs betrayed the mixing and competing influences of Harad and Gondor as well as the assortment of even stranger cultures which washed up ashore. Qudamah, as he cantered down the main street of the City, saw elvish and dwarvish trinkets alongside rusted Gondorian shields and Haradrim spears. He saw recognizably Ghibli men with their mûmakil stands, as well as strange, bearded white men with braids in their long, tawny hair. He saw Imbati mendicants with beards down to their navels, beards which were dyed in all colors – red, yellow, blue.
He went down the main road until it opened up into the city’s square. Today there was a flower market, and so he dismounted, led his horse to the nearest public stable. He paid with Sepya’s money, whispered a few words to Saad, and then set off in the direction of the docks. The man in Dashmir had guessed that his father would have joined a ship’s crew if he had gone to the City of the Corsairs – since there was little else a foreigner could do in terms of work, and it was the perfect way to disappear – which it seemed he wanted to do, young Qudamah.
Qudamah decided he would take his meal in a tavern by the harbor, and then he would begin his search. And so he found a Haradrim smoking room – since he did not wish to try any Gondorian or Corsair cuisine yet. The tiny establishment was wedged into a corner right as the alleyway turned sharply left. Qudamah could see the sea blinking nearby; he could smell the salty air, the fish.
The smoking room was Imbati, for the men were tall and muscular and dark as night. Using a stilted High Harmatti, they beckoned him to sit, offered him food and drink. He smiled, thanked them. The smoking room was empty – and Qudamah realized it was much too early for the midday meal. He had forgotten these things in his time in the desert.
Hanging drapes shielded the sun. The walls were adorned with unlit oil-lamps. The seats were low, cushioned, while the table was high, so that Qudamah sat cross-legged with his arms up at the level of his shoulders. The room’s walls were decorated in the flowing art of Imbat – deep jungles, lions, striped cats, monkeys. And then the swirling mural changed and became an image of the sea, of the inky Imbati fishermen as they pushed their long boats out onto the water.
The food arrived. Fried fish, garnished with carrots, oranges, white lemons, and a green herb. There was mirtem to drink, but Qudamah asked instead for water. As he ate, he could not still the sharp beating in his heart – the painful churning in his stomach. He would sleep through midday; and then he would begin his search in the afternoon. Yet now – the thought of his father – what if he should find him here? Slow panic. Calm, calm, calm. He closed his eyes, felt the Blade of Sadaqat – he rarely wore the sheath, but today he had thought better to keep it with him – and now that smooth, sharp edge soothed him. And he placed his hands, cool from the glass, against his over-warm cheeks, and closed his eyes. Calm…
As a child, Qudamah spies
he tiptoes, kneels, crouches down
(he is six years old)
feeling the cool stone floor against stringy arms and legs
the smell of jasmine and spice
spilling out from the kitchen
into his hidden spot.
(Outside his home, the dunes are silent. The moon is full.)
Sand scratching against little
Qudamah’s knee as he adjusts it.
There is an opening in the draping curtain
Qudamah looks through,
his black hair, so thick
pushing against the curtain before he does
and he peers into the kitchen
where the candlelight plays funny games
dancing shadows against the wall
thick tapestries depicting Haradrim history come alive.
He sees his father
sitting at the table,
empty bottle and full glass.
Large, broad, muscular back
stomach rounded with drink, shoulders wide with toil.
Powerful, strong, noble
now worn down and aging
like an ancient hero torn from the pages of a history book
brushed off, dusted, and now placed at the sandy table.
His father is a pale man from North
burnt red-brown leather skin
with scars here and there, everywhere
pale sand hair and pale sea eyes
that are now vacant, reflecting the candlelight.
His father’s tunic lies half-open,
and Qudamah can see a thick scar
across his chest into his stomach, unseen
and young Qudamah wonders
imagines dreams – yes, it must have been so
of his father, the mighty warrior,
leading armies to courageous victory
giving harsh orders, thrusting his long sword
into the fat bellies of barbaric Gondorians
spit and blood dribbling from their slack mouths...
Movement, another shadow,
(a cold night-breeze from the desert)
Qudamah sees his mother
black hair the color of night
black eyes deep with understanding
brown-tan skin like Qudamah.
She pads across to his father
and his father tilts his head back
and she leans forward…
a sloppy kiss
(for his father has been drinking).
As his mother pulls her lips away
she is smiling sadly
she is cradling his head
running her fingers through his pale hair
brushing his pale eyes
calming him, though he is quiet
and Qudamah feels such love
such fierce consuming love
he sees that his mother and father rival the ancient tales
and wring envy from the heavens
her hand rests on his father’s brow
as he leans back, looks up with eyes closed,
lips still parted from the kiss.
Qudamah’s heart beats loud
for he is spying! And should be in bed
but the sight is fascinating
the dancing shadows silent, the soft breaths…
He sees his father reach a hand up
run rough fingers over sadly smiling lips
pull her into a kiss, another sloppy kiss
heavy breathing, his father is definitely drunk (again again again)
and so in love
(if Qudamah understood
and perhaps he will know once or twice in his life)
that his father’s heart blazes bright intense
with passion protection lust suffering need
all these things, a confusion
an unendurable desire.
His mother moves the bottle away, takes the glass away,
Qudamah holds his breath – ah…
but his father does not argue.
“It is late, husband. Go to bed.”
His father moves slowly, stretches stiff:
“We are being watched. The little one does not sleep.”
Holds his breath
silences his heart
stares at his father’s eyes
staring back at him.
His father smiles, beckons him forward.
Qudamah smells the musty alcohol cloud
feels the rough hands
scarred, gnarled, callused hands
red-black cracked knuckles
hands that once made Qudamah bleed at the nose
when he was punished, that time in the market…
hands that held a sword, for sure, long ago
and work the land, tame the horses
gentle rough hands now
pick Qudamah up, up
and he feels the warmth of his father
who kisses his hair
whispers: “My prince. My young prince.”
and tells him stories of a Great Tree in a faraway forest
whose branches disappear in the sunlight.
Qudamah listens, listens
soft incantations of his father’s voice
he speaks like a Northerner, all gutturals
deep and low, whispering
strange stories, mighty battles
Qudamah is drowsy…
…and before he sleeps,
he is for once proud of his pale eyes
just like his father’s
and his small six-year-old heart beats strong…
Ten days did Qudamah spend in the City of the Corsairs. Every day, he visited a different tavern, a different inn. He tried the Black Númenoreans, the Haradrim, the Gondorians, the native Umbari. And he heard naught but whispers of Amir the Pale, who was known also as Reviamîr the White, Boromir the Mad, or Naegadan of North. Yet whether these names were all the same man, or whether these were all different men – Qudamah did not know.
The stories grew, enlarged, began to contradict each other. Qudamah heard stories of Amir the Pale, who had set sail from Umbar nearly ten years ago, only to drown in the waters near the Pink Isles of Mírdain, caught in the webs of a great sea monster – but Qudamah’s father could not have arrived in Umbar earlier than five years ago. Then there was the tale of Naegadan, who also called himself Amir, a man who had been sold into slavery to those savage Corsairs who lived only on the sea – it was said Naegadan had been a soldier from Khand, a white man with yellow hair and yellow eyes and yellowing skin – Qudamah dismissed that tale. Yet he was getting closer, for his father had oft spoken of such things – barbarians from Khand, slaves on the sea, men with yellow eyes. Were these whispered reminders of his presence? The last vestiges – now translated and transformed – of the stories his father had once told in these taverns?
The last story Qudamah heard was told to him by an old man named Calimehtar in a Haradrim smoking room, late at night, when both Qudamah and the old man had been drinking and smoking for several hours. Calimehtar’s tale spoke of a maddened prince – a prince of the White City – who, years ago, had fought much on the windy fields of Gondor, only to be captured by the Eye and then rescued, years later, and returned to his city, driven mad by his tortures. Boromir the Mad they call him, and call him still, Calimehtar said. Son of Denethor the Mad, Gondor’s last ruler ere the King’s return.
The smoking room was filled with people. Women weaved between the crowded tables, holding aloft trays full of tall mirtemil glasses and bottles, or carrying heavy hookahs – smoldering. And the smoke – like a fog – lingered by the ceiling, so that Qudamah’s eyes watered, and he felt dizzy. He had found Calimehtar by the docks – an elderly sailor who had instantly recognized the tale of a wandering Amir – and they had come to this Haradrim tavern to talk. Both men had opted only for wine to drink and dried fruit to smoke rather than the heavier drugs.
Yet nonetheless Qudamah felt lightheaded. He was tired, and he had, in the last few days, begun plotting his best course to the White City. Regardless of his search, for it had been ten days – too many. Ten days and he had not even learned if his father was living or dead. He was beginning to lose hope. And he had no desire to hear yet another fabricated tale which told him nothing of where his father was now.
And so he leaned forward, chin in palm, and watched as Calimehtar told his story. Another tale to add to the list. The old man had drank much wine, and he was vigorously explaining the types of knots they had used on the ship on which he and Amir had journeyed. Not feeling enough energy to dismiss this man and thank him for his troubles, Qudamah chose instead to half-listen, letting his eyes drift over the crowded room.
Calimehtar was a Corsair man with tanned, leathery skin and startlingly clear, blue eyes. His hair was a clean, pure white. Qudamah yawned.
“…ah, but you don’t believe me, no, no, no. You don’t. Look?” Calimehtar was saying. “See, you are tired. You would sleep, young man, yes? Well, I won’t keep you any longer. ‘Tis useless to speak to the young, you know, useless! They don’t listen. And when they listen, they cannot hear – they think you’re lying, or inventing tales, making things up! But know that Calimehtar never lies, young Qudamah, no, no, no.”
Qudamah stared down at his goblet, swirled the last of the wine around. He stifled another yawn.
“I meant no disrespect, old Calimehtar,” he said. “And I thank you for your stories.”
“Ha! You thank me for my lies, you mean to say!” Celimehtar shook his head. “You think I lie, eh? Eh?”
“Tell me, Qudamah, why did you tell me you were a merchant from Ghibli? ‘I come to settle a debt with Amir the Pale,’ you said. Ha! Didn’t your father teach you not to lie?” The old man began to pour another drink. A nearby table erupted in laughter.
“I do not seem like a merchant from Ghibli?” Qudamah asked, bored.
“Why did you lie, Qudamah? Anyone who knows Amir knows that Qudamah is his son! Bah! Not a drunken night passed that he did not mention you, or swear by your name. ‘As Qudamah is my son!’ he would say. Always!” Calimehtar laughed. “’Tis obvious you’re Amir’s boy! You have his eyes. I knew it the first moment I saw you.”
Qudamah jerked up, startled. Calimehtar was the first man since the Ghibli bartender to have known Amir’s true story – the story that Qudamah knew, of a wife and son abandoned in Abbas.
“Ah… now you listen, I see! I see!” Calimehtar exclaimed.
“But – you – why didn’t you tell me this before? You should have told me you knew who I was!”
“Well, you asked of Amir the Pale, and where he was. And I told you.”
“You told me a story about a maddened prince of Gondor. Old Calimehtar, we’ve been here for hours – ”
“I told you of your father!”
Qudamah rolled his eyes, frustrated. “Very well, very well. You told me of my father, who is called Amir and Boromir and Naegadan and Reviamîr, and who was born in Gondor and Khand and Rhûn and everywhere!” He leaned forward on his elbows. “It tells me nothing of where to find him.”
“He may have called himself by a new name for each country he walked through – and these were many, my boy! – but ‘twas Boromir his true name, and still is! Boy, I swear by the star of Eärendil: his name was and is Boromir!”
“And if I go to Gondor, will they know of this Boromir?” Qudamah asked, crossing his arms and leaning back.
At that, Calimehtar burst out laughing. He howled, he slammed his hand on the table, he nearly fell from his chair. Qudamah frowned. Once the old man had regained enough breath to talk, his chest heaving, tears brimming in his eyes, he shook his head wildly,
“Boy, everyone in Gondor knows who Boromir the Mad is! He is a legend!”
Qudamah frowned, stared hard at Calimehtar. The old man met his stare with wide, watery eyes. Finally Qudamah leaned back, drawing the hookah’s pipe to him, staring at his hands.
“Then I shall go to Gondor and see of this Boromir.”
“Go to the White City – you’ll find him there, by the Valar!”
“Tell me, Qudamah, now that you believe me…” Calimehtar dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. He leaned in. “What will you say to old Amir once you see him? Eh? What are you going to tell your Bapu?”
Qudamah fingered the hookah’s mouthpiece. He shrugged slightly.
“I’m not sure,” he raised his eyes to look at Calimehtar, “I suppose I shall do what any Haradrim son would do.”
Calimehtar’s eyes widened and he shook his head slightly. “Nay, nay, boy… let your Bapu speak first. There’s much to his tale.”
“But you told me all of it.”
“Aye, that I did,” Calimehtar admitted, “Boromir the Mad, hmm.” He looked at Qudamah. “Let your Bapu speak first, anyway, Qudamah. Eh? Trust old Calimehtar, he knows what he speaks of. You’re a young boy – a whole life ahead of you! Don’t listen to foul customs and tradition, pfft!”
“He left my mother and I to starve, Calimehtar.”
Calimehtar sighed, shook his head. “Bah!” he spat. “Custom! They don’t do such things in the northern realms, you know.”
“It’s not the realm, it’s him!” Qudamah seethed. “He left us to starve, he knew what would happen!”
“Just let him speak first, Qudamah, let him speak.”
On a clear, silent morning, Qudamah left Umbar. Calimehtar had suggested taking one of the trading boats up to Dol Amroth as that would shorten his journey by a week or so. And so Qudamah had gone down to the harbor, and paid a burly, white sailor his fee, and then attempted to lead Saad onto the gangplank. The horse had jerked his head, shook his hair, flicked his ears back, rolled his eyes. He had snorted, brayed, neighed and protested. Finally, after Qudamah had soothed him, whispering sweet promises of flat, open desert and a garden of carrots, Saad had taken his first, reluctant steps.
“Ye have a good way with horses, lad,” a sailor called from another part of deck. He jutted his pipe in Qudamah’s direction. “I used to know a Haradrim horse-tamer, I did – oh, years ago. Reviamîr from Beshabar, he was. Here, let’s take this fine beast down below, an’ I tell ye about the white Haradrim horse-tamer. It’s a funny story, actually…”
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