6. Epilogue: Homecoming
Ahn-dhurin e-Han gleamed like a quicksilver ribbon as it snaked through the green land. Or rather, 'Anduin the Great' as it is called here, Indirkan reminded himself. A strange place, Gondor, so very unlike Harad! And though it was summer, he felt chilled, and longed for the heat of his native land. Still, as he and his escort moved towards the White Tower, he felt himself gripped by a taut anticipation, for never before had he thought to see that symbol of Gondor's might with his own eyes. Long was the wait, but soon we shall know whether our fight was in vain. For if Harad must perish now at the hands of the West, or be no better than an enslaved land, then my life shall be justly forfeit indeed! And in fact, Indirkan feared less for his life than for the task and the cause he had served for so many hard years. His hair was grey now, and his face lined with the experience and sun of many years, yet his back was unbent and his brown eyes were as keen as they had been of old. He had spent his life in the service of a Harad that had not wanted the gift he would give–the gift of that same fatal enlightenment and choice that had led him down the road from vagabond to open rebellion. After nearly forty years bearing the brand of "traitor," to be called now "my honored lord" was both gratifying and unsettling, for it heralded the completion of a circle that had begun with a chance encounter on the plains of Dargalt. Yet, it was not quite closed, and Indirkan was gripped with a sense of prescient anticipation that tingled beneath his skin. For he was the first envoy to come out of the South to Elessar's court, and he who had once led the rebels of Harad looked now to Gondor for a final judgment. If this king is just, then it may be that what we have suffered in the south was worthwhile in truth and not only in seeming. Forty years since this began…! He shook his head slightly, remembering.
After that long and difficult night in the cave, and the parting in the afternoon, he had returned home in secret to Kirdali once more. His sister had wept at his choice, but in the end, she had not betrayed him. And so far as he knew, she lived still in their father's house, wife to no man, for none would have her. And I am glad of that, for I would not wish any upon her in that place! he thought with a shiver that was not entirely due to the wind. Thought of her had borne him through many a hardship, and though he had been unable to risk returning to Dargalt, he knew well the debt he owed her for her acceptance of his choice. And perhaps soon I shall be able to visit her once more. When I return from this journey, perhaps…. Voices cried out as the mariners went into a flurry of activity as they approached the dock. Stern were the faces of the men who awaited them, all clad in the black and silver of Gondor, and Indirkan noted that that tension was mirrored among the sailors aboard ship. Who would have thought, after all, he reflected, that the Corsairs of Umbar should heave to harbor in Gondor as guests and not as enemies?
"The tar– the Gondorrim have sent an escort, my lord," the commander of his own guard, Hetkahrat, said as he came to stand at his side. Indirkan chose to overlook the hastily covered slip, and simply nodded. "What are your orders?"
"Make no threatening move, commander, and speak not without my permission," he replied. The other grimaced at that, but nodded sharply. Given a choice, Indirkan would have preferred to pick men whom he trusted to go with him, but the Lords of Harad had decided otherwise. Thus the nervous and somewhat hostile commander Hetkahrat, but he was well-trained and could at least be relied upon for unquestioning obedience. The other three men assigned to him fell in behind him as they disembarked and the captain of the Gondorrim stood forth to greet them. And from his garb–brown and green–it was apparent that he was one of the Rangers with whom Harad had fought so many battles. It would seem that the new king is not without a sense of irony, Indirkan thought, and not without approval, as he studied the captain.
A tall man, he seemed young for his post, but that was not unexpected. Both Gondor and Harad had suffered the loss of a generation in this latest war, and Hetkahrat surely was no more than five years his counterpart's senior. Crossing his hands upon his breast, the Gondorrim bowed, and then introduced himself, "I am called Anborn," said he. "Welcome, in the name of the King, to Gondor, and to Minas Tirith, my lord."
"May the sky smile upon you," Indirkan replied, and was surprised when the other betrayed no sign of confusion at the greeting. "I am called Indirkan, of the House of Rhanion."
"If you will follow me," Anborn invited with a wave of his hand, and Indirkan fell in at his side as the two escorts uneasily formed up upon them. None spoke as they made their way from Harlond through the gate of the Rammas Echor, for among the Haradrim, only Hetkahrat and Indirkan could speak the tongue of the West. That muteness, like the gate itself, in fact, stood as silent testimony to the gulf between peoples. The great walls' massive gates, though still standing, were hardly necessary, for men were still at work upon those walls, repairing the many breaches that had been opened during the siege of Minas Tirith. And the Pelennor bore still evidence of its hard use: overgrown ditches could still be traced, and the grass grew in a patchwork fashion, thicker in places, and here and there, bare earth showed in swaths. Yet cottages had been rebuilt, and the first crops were being carefully tended by families who looked up with wary interest at their passage. Long would it be ere the city was restored to its former splendor, but the healing had begun in earnest. And how long ere Harad is at peace? Indirkan wondered, thinking of the divisions rife within his homeland. Not all of Harad had agreed to this overture, and upon his return, he doubted not that civil war would spring up. Thus is it ever, he thought sadly as they began the climb through the streets of Minas Tirith. No sooner is one war ended than another begins!
But for the moment, that was not his concern, and as Anborn led him along the broad and winding thoroughfares of the Tower of the Guard, he gazed up with awe. Most Haradrim of rank could claim some descent from Núménor, but Indirkan's family had come more recently from Gondor than had many. And still, it is a millennium since one of my line has walked these streets. It was a homecoming of sorts, though there was nothing left of the Gondor that his ancestors had fled. Then had Osgiliath been the chief city of the realm, and he had passed amid its ruins on either side of Anduin. Passing through ruins… yes, that is our fate, I fear, if ever we are to find peace. For even as the Gondor of my forebears exists no longer, the Harad of my youth lies now in the dust. Truly, I am homeless now, as I never thought to be in all my wandering life!
The seventh and last level of the city spread before them as they emerged from the final gate, and the Citadel rose high above them. The guards here wore livery different from their brethren, and seemed as walking shadows in the bright plaza, for the sable of their gear was relieved only by the tree and stars embroidered upon their tunics. Gardens, the like of which Indirkan had never before seen, surrounded the tower with a profusion of color. Glancing about, he noted that even Hetkahrat could not forbear to stare with great interest and no little trepidation at this clear sign of abundant water. Indeed, the fountain that graced the courtyard was to a desert-bred people a sign of wealth beyond imagining. As they passed near the fountain, a diamond-bright glint caught Indirkan's eyes. Planted a little ways away, Indirkan noted a slender sapling that gleamed in the sun, and caught his breath as he realized that the tree was in fact a luminous white. Gondor's fabled white tree! He had thought the emblem mere stylization, but gazing upon that budding shoot, he realized the truth. And do they keep also stars, I wonder?
Two of the dark-liveried guards opened the doors for the party, and as they entered, they saluted after the fashion of Gondor. Through vast halls lit by high windows cut deep into the walls they followed their guide until they came at last to the Great Hall. Here, Anborn held up a hand, signaling a halt. "The ambassador and I will go forward," he explained, gazing at Hetkahrat, "but it is the custom for escorts to remain here. My men will wait with you." The Haradrim commander darted a swift glance at Indirkan, who signed subtly for him to obey. Reluctantly, the other bowed and, speaking softly in his own tongue, arrayed his men to one side, while Anborn's company went to the other. "This way," Anborn said in an undertone and they passed together through the forbidding doors.
There were halls in Rhath-Ihnfar, the chief city of Harad, that were covered from floor to ceiling in red and gold damask, and floors whose inlaid mosaics were so intricate it was a crime to tread upon them. Yet never had Indirkan felt intimidated by such gaudy display. But walking through the double row of carved jet images, he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, as if the many faces had leveled the weight of their collective stony stare upon him. The soft murmur of voices died as the Lords of Gondor watched him approach the dais, and he noted that this company, too, had many young faces in it. How many have come here for the first time, to fill the place of a father or uncle? he wondered, noting in especial the man who stood first in that line, closest to the steps. Dark haired and grey-eyed, he gazed at the Haradrim ambassador frankly, and there was in his appraisal a strange maturity, and a sadness that ran deeper than his years ought to permit. That would be Faramir, he realized, placing the other. He had heard his name often in his dealings on the borders between Gondor and Harad, and had even seen him once or twice, though from afar. For the smugglers and spies who frequented that contested region were equally wary of the old steward's son, who had been then the Captain of Ithilien and, with his Rangers, the bane of their illegal existence.
"My king," Anborn broke the silence, bowing low ere he straightened and gestured to Indirkan. "Here is Lord Indirkan of the House of Rhanion, envoy of Harad." Indirkan tore his eyes from Faramir and bowed in his turn.
"Welcome, my lord, to Gondor," said a voice that rang oddly familiar. As Indirkan focused for the first time upon Gondor's sovereign, Elessar rose in greeting and, to the surprise of all, came to stand upon the lowest step before Indirkan. And the Haradrim's eyes widened in shock as he gazed up into that face. Impossible! So spoke logic, but never had a son so resembled his father. The same eyes, the same face…. Nay, it cannot be! "Well-met once more," said the other, and confused murmurs sprang up among the spectators at that.
"Khordan?" Indirkan demanded bluntly, incredulous still, yet unable to explain away the evidence of his own senses. But he must be older than I, even, and yet…! Vague memory stirred at that, and he remembered that even among the Haradrim, in the high houses, there were those who remained vigorous for many years past the usual span of a man's years. But forty years…!
"So you called me then, and I could give you no other name," replied Elessar, and paused a moment, gazing intently at him. "It needed a new age for us both to meet again, and I hope that this time, we may trust each other better."
Amid the confusion of the hall, Indirkan stared at Khordan, who was also Elessar Telcontar of Gondor, and knew not what to think. But there was a light in the other's eyes, one instantly recognizable, though deeper and more profound than it had been in former times. And in spite of the many questions that reared their heads, he found himself falling once more under their spell. That stirred something in him, a memory of their cautious, painful overtures to each other, and the odd trust that had let him part in fledgling friendship on that long ago afternoon. I think I shall see you again, Khordan had said, and for forty long years, he had searched in vain. Only to meet here, where neither of us thought to stand! Then, Indirkan laughed softly under his breath, and said in his own tongue, "We have many sayings in the deep south, even for such occasions as this. 'A friend is one with whom you would share water in the desert, and blood when water is lacking.' I think we have done both, after a fashion!" He paused, and then said very deliberately, "And I would do so again!"
Khordan smiled at that, and replied softly, "As would I, cousin."
Later, as the day faded softly into evening, Indirkan stood in the gardens of the Seventh Circle and gazed down upon the city. After the surprises of the day, he felt a need for reflection and so, over Hetkahrat's protests, he had come alone to this place. But now that he was here, his thoughts were idle and unfocused. The air was humid and tinged with the scents of growing things, of blossoms and trees that Indirkan had never seen before nor imagined in his dreams. Everything seemed to crowd upon his senses, and he shook his head, amazed by the myriad distractions that sprang simply from his surroundings.
"Harad overwhelmed me with its light and emptiness when first I came there," said Khordan's voice at his shoulder, and Indirkan started. The king glanced at him as the ambassador turned, and he raised a brow. "I imagine that this place must seem to you equally strange."
"It does indeed," Indirkan replied, gazing back. The other had exchanged his formal robes for lighter clothing, simple enough in its cut, and he seemed now much more the man he remembered. "Many years I looked for you, and wondered whether you had met some unpleasant fate at the hands of Gondor… or Harad! And now I know well why I never found you!"
"I warned you it would be long ere we met again," said he. And then he paused, ere he continued, "In the hall this morning, I knew not at first whether you would be still pleased to see me again, or whether you would account me worse than a traitor, and call me a spy sent to deceive you."
"I confess, the thought had crossed my mind," Indirkan replied. "But you once said yourself that even I might not know the reasons for my trust. And as I did then, though painfully and with reluctance, I trust you now. The days that come will tell whether that trust is misplaced."
"Do you believe that it shall prove so in the end?" Elessar asked, and his tone, though earnest, was also genuinely curious.
"No, I think it shall not." For awhile, neither man spoke, absorbed in his own considerations, trying in the space granted by silence to feel the other out in thought.
"How should I call you?" Indirkan asked suddenly, voicing the question that had always plagued him.
"'Khordan' suits me well enough, if you prefer it to the name I bear now," replied the king. "But my birth name is Aragorn."
"Arahghorn," Indirkan gave it a full, Haradric pronunciation, rolling it about in his mouth, and the other smiled at that.
"How fares your sister, Kirdali?"
"Well, I hope," he replied, surprised and pleased that the other had remembered. "I may even see her again when I return. Forty years it has been since we parted, but I know she lives still." A pause, then, "And what of your lass, Aragorn? Did she wait for you?"
Aragorn laughed softly in the growing dark as lamps flared in the streets below. "Your herald left ere the news came, but yes, she did wait. Gondor has a queen, my friend!"
"Then I am glad to hear it! I hope she is not ill?" Indirkan asked cautiously, wondering at her absence earlier in the Great Hall.
"Nay, but there is much that needs to be done in the city, and Arwen is a capable steward. Would you meet her?"
"If that would not be uncouth of me." Indirkan yet knew little of custom in Gondor, and did not wish to offend unwittingly with such a request.
"It would not be," the other assured him. "For even were you not family, you would still be a friend."
"I had meant to ask you about your words in the hall this morning," the Haradrim said as the two of them crossed the lawn and walked back towards the tower. "You called me 'cousin' …?"
Beneath the stars, Aragorn turned to him once more, and even in the dim light, Indirkan saw him smile. "Of course. House Rhanion has a long history, and ere I left for Harad, I spent many long hours learning all that I could of that land. I know well the houses of the Unrepentant, and 'Rhanion' is not a word of Haradric crafting. Did you never wonder what it meant?"
"In truth, no. Our family's history says little of those who left Gondor, beyond that they did leave. And I am not a scholar in tongues."
"It comes from Sindarin, 'Ereinion,'" Aragorn replied. "That is, 'Scion of the Kings.'" As Indirkan gaped at him, he laughed softly, and said, "Welcome home, Indirkan Ereinion!" Shaking his head in wonder, Indirkan joined him in his laughter. He gazed up at the stars arrayed (to his eyes) strangely above them, thinking how very odd was fortune in this wide world, and together they walked slowly back to the Citadel.
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