32. Desert Ride
The party distributed alms outside the temple as they left, a process Pippin and Isumbard particularly found uncomfortable. That those who were blind, lame, or otherwise incapacitated would be expected to live by begging was simply unfathomable to those from the Shire. Once they were again on the East side of the Risen Pippin finally spoke on it. "Imagine if we'd forced Ferdibrand to go out and beg once we learned he'd been blinded. He may not be able to hunt any more, but he still fishes; he can't read to himself or write down himself what he wants written, but he can analyze what's read to him more clearly than many who can read and write easily but never give any conscious thought to whether it's likely to be accurate, true, false, or just a tale for entertainment's sake; and he's better at remembering where things are than many folks who can't find what they laid down two minutes ago."
"Like you, Pippin?" asked his older cousin dryly.
The Hobbit Captain ignored that. "Or what if someone had insisted that because he was a mannikin Master Ruvemir couldn't become an artist, but had to hang around the entrance to a building like that all day instead, waiting for people to feel sorry for him?"
The sculptor's face was uncharacteristically solemn. "Do you truly think it doesn't happen at times in Gondor, my Captain? Maybe we don't have temples where we force those who are different to beg; but so many families treat other mannikins I've met as if they remain children all their lives, and never take their questions or interests or even their needs seriously. Miriel and I were extremely fortunate to be born to our parents, who never let our size become more important than our abilities or personalities. At least here the belief someone who is crippled must therefore be helpless is openly expressed rather than hidden behind glib words and locked doors."
Pippin was surprised at Ruvemir's almost bitter response. "Does it really happen that way in Gondor sometimes?" he asked. At the mannikin's decisive nod he looked thoughtful. He thought of the very few times he had heard of such children being born among Hobbits, and thought how the children were treated, and realized he rarely actually saw such children. He decided he was going to make an effort to find out what type of lives such children experienced when he got home.
The King commented, "In Minas Anor and throughout much of Gondor we have done our best to find means to allow those who were crippled or blinded or deafened in the battles against Sauron to continue to work afterward; as a result more children born that way and more individuals who become so as the result of accidents are beginning to receive thought and training and aid to live as normal in spite of their conditions--but it is likely we are unaware of far more who have been hidden away."
He looked now at his sculptor and continued, "And now that we are more aware such happens, I will begin making even more of an effort to find such children and have their families and neighbors made aware that it is no shame to have them within the family."
"It is the entire community that needs to be so educated, my beloved Lord," Ruvemir commented. Aragorn nodded thoughtfully in response.
As they passed the market they paused while the King and Queen found desert robes fit for three of the four ladies and Hasturnerini as well as Isumbard, Ruvemir, Owain, Elfwine, and Elboron, and trail food proper to the needs of the Hobbits.
On their return to the palace they went immediately to their rooms and gathered their personal satchels to them. A single chest had also been readied for each group, which had been taken to the sitting room before they left for the temple. While those who'd gone were absent Hardorn had gone through each room and seen to it their other goods were properly stowed and their chests banded in such a way he would be able to tell if they'd been gone through later; and when the porters came to carry the goods for the King's party to the barge he and Mablung oversaw its removal, with Mablung remaining on the barge with it while Hardorn returned to the palace to await the return of the rest. Now ready with their personal satchels over their shoulders and the robes or cloaks they would wear during the ride over their arms, all followed the Farozi's servants down the water stairs to the barge.
They were closely followed by Ankhrabi's family and the Lady Ankhsarani; then Lord Rustovrid's family and three attendants arrived with Sa'Amonri. At last the Farozi himself came down the steps, accompanied by two of his nephews to serve as his personal guard and followed by Amonrabi to see them off. The two brothers spoke quietly, then surprised all of the Haradrim by openly embracing one another before An'Sohrabi embarked and took his place in his great chair. As the barge finally was untied and began on its trip upriver to the Western Palace Amonrabi watched after, the care he felt for his brother obvious on his face.
Pippin had brought his flute tucked into his belt, and as the barge made its way began to play it, mostly marching tunes timed for those who manned the poles. This new skill shown by the Hobbit Captain enthralled the children. When he began to play the tune for the hymn to Neryet they'd sung the preceding night, the Haradri children laughed with pleasure, then, one after another, began to sing along, joined at the last by Lady Ankhsarani, who proved to have a pleasing voice. Cooling drinks were offered to all, and as Pippin took a break to appreciate his own drink, Benai began to sing. Half familiar and half alien it seemed to the Northern Dúnedain, for the words and tune were those of a song telling of the coming of the Valar to fight Morgoth, but the rhythm was that of the jungle land where Benai's own people lived. All watched the tall black Man with fascination, and Rustovrid's eldest daughter felt as if, for the first time, she were truly seeing him.
A meal had been prepared for them on their arrival at the Western Palace, which was indeed on the West bank of the River some five miles South of the city of Thetos. All were glad for the plates of melon and cold meats and cheeses and bread, all served them on the shaded lawn between the house and the river. Again Hardorn oversaw the removal of the chests to the cart which would carry them on the morrow, and he and Damrod and the Lady Lorieth saw to the assignment of rooms given to their use and brought personal satchels in and distributed them appropriately. Hildigor now remained on guard in the guest wing while the rest of the party relaxed outside.
Elfwine accompanied his father, the King of Gondor, and the Prince of Ithilien out to the stables with Lord Ankhrabi as they looked to see what animals were available so that they could be assigned to appropriate riders. The stable master led them into the depths of the structure which was made of carefully wrought mud bricks baked hard by the desert sun, and began to describe the strengths and special traits of each of his charges. Ankhrabi had begun to think the child was mute, for he couldn't think of a time he'd heard the small boy speak; but at the sight of the residents of the stable that changed. Elfwine broke into a spate of words that appeared to be full Rohirric which his father answered in kind, when he could find a break in his son's communication to make an answer.
At last An'Éomer put his hand over the small child's mouth and spoke in Westron. "Sa, sa, softly, my son. You've said naught in the hearing of the Haradrim since our arrival, and now you won't be still? What is this, then?"
"I thought they didn't know horses, Papa." Ankhrabi found himself laughing in spite of himself.
A number of ponies had been obtained over the last few days at the Farozi's request, and now the two Northern Kings had them led out into the paddock and examined them carefully. Elfwine was drawn to one, and reached up and patted its nose. At first it drew away, then changed its mind and leaned down over the small boy as he spoke to it in that special singsong a good horseman seems to use naturally as he speaks to his steed. "Papa!" the child said, turning away from the pony, through whose mane he now had his fingers threaded, "lift me up!"
Shrugging, the King of Rohan did as his son asked, casually setting the child upon the pony's bare back. Quickly Ankhrabi realized that this child, as small as he was, was indeed from a culture devoted to horses, for when the pony tried to run, taken by surprise to find a weight on its back with no saddle, the child held on with delight, automatically leaning forward to hold the mane more tightly as he called out encouragement. Somehow reassured, the pony slowed and steadied, then allowed the boy to choose the way, coming back to the adults in good time. There was no sign that An'Éomer had experienced any concern for the safety of his son; although there'd been an expression of anxiety in the eyes of Prince Faramir, who now shook his head as if telling himself he ought to have known not to worry.
Proper steeds were chosen for the use of each Hobbit, Gimli, Master Ruvemir, and the Princess Melian as well as Rustovrid's youngest daughter, while it was obvious young Elfwine had chosen his own mount and already had come to an understanding with it.
The Northern lords again wandered into the stable itself, looking at the horses nearest the doors. None of the horses seemed shy at the presence of the Northerners, and particularly responded positively to the King of the Mark. For himself he found a fiery grey.
"He's temperamental, that one is," the stablemaster commented. "Trained to war. His former master once served in the forces of Mordor, but has taken to raising horses now. All of his horses are trained to bear warriors."
When An'Elessar translated this, An'Éomer smiled. "Then we ought to get along well enough."
Legolas had found his way to the stables after them, was looking at the horses with them, and nodded. "Yes, my lord, that is a good match for you. He will be glad to find a warrior born and bred upon his back." He continued to examine other animals, and then paused at a stall holding a bay mare. He paused and smiled. "And I believe I've found one willing to bear me," he said gently. He walked forward and stood where he could see her more clearly. She put her head over the low gate to the stall, pushed her nose at the Elf's chest, and he soon had his arms about her neck, speaking softly to her, speaking her praise and winning her allegiance. He looked to the stablemaster. "I shall ride this one, and she'll need no tack when you bring her out."
The stablemaster looked in question at his lord, who shrugged in return. An'Elessar explained, "When Elves ride with saddle and bridle, you will find they are more for show and to carry soft bells for the pleasure of both than for any practical purpose. She may be surprised to find herself ridden Elf-fashion, but I assure you she will adapt quickly with Legolas on her back."
Ankhrabi turned to the stablemaster. "Bring Hirvuiloth and the three with him out to the paddock." He then suggested to Aragorn, "Let us go out and see these brought out into the open. They will show better there."
Intrigued, Aragorn agreed and they went out. Soon the stablemaster and two grooms led out four horses, somewhat larger than the rest. The King smiled. "Perdui breeding," he said.
"Yes. They are descended from a stud my uncle once bought."
"Yes, for twenty sisterces." He reached forward as the greatest came within reach, a dappled grey stallion. "Grey Hawk that translates to, does it not?"
"Yes. My father named him, and now I know in whose honor. We both thought of him as the proper steed for you."
"I am honored." He examined the other two, and quickly the other stallion was assigned to Benai and the two mares to Arwen and Faramir. Faramir was caressing both mares with an expression to show he, too, was a good judge of fine horseflesh. A lovely white mare was chosen for Queen Lorieth, and then at an exclamation they found that the Lady Éowyn also had found her way to the presence of the horses and was examining a roan gelding with delight, stroking his head and quickly winning his affection as she fed him a date she'd brought with her. Ankhrabi shook his head. "It is obvious that all of your people are indeed horsemen, my Lord An'Elessar." He turned to watch where the small child, still on the back of the pony, rode alongside his father as his father looked at more of the denizens of the Farozi's stables as they were let out to graze in the fenced field that glowed green alongside the river, a small line of verdant color between the river and the starkness of the desert further West.
When they returned they found that many of those present has stripped to loincloths or small clothes and were swimming in the stone-lined pool fed from the river itself. Arwen and Lothiriel had pulled short chemises over themselves, and lay in the shallows with their naked son and nephew held close to their chests. Pippin had the close shirt he wore usually under his mail and his drawers on him as he swam, while Isumbard, fully clad, sat under the shade of a date palm and watched with obvious discomfort. Aragorn and Faramir looked to one another. A screened roofless structure, their host indicated, was where most would disrobe and hang those clothes they chose not to wear into the water. Both nodded, disappeared into it, and came out wearing only small clothes and entered into the pool themselves.
Benai was watching with obvious longing in his eyes when Mablung jabbed him in the ribs. "You can't remain on duty at all times, Man," he said carefully. "I'm on duty now. Go join them."
Benai looked uncertainly at the King, who on being made to understand what the matter was about indicated Benai was to give over his duty, and at last with a flashing smile Benai handed his sword into Mablung's keeping, disappeared behind the screen himself, and clad in a loincloth joined the rest.
All went to their quarters early that night, and almost two hours before dawn were roused, took their morning meal, donned their robes or cloaks, and walked to the stables where master and grooms had been busy for the past hour and a half readying the animals.
The saddles were different than the Northerners were accustomed to (save for Aragorn himself), but with the aid of the grooms stirrups were quickly set at the right length, and they all mounted. Only Benai seemed totally uncertain what to do; but with the guidance of the King he was finally mounted as well, and the King himself took his reins to lead him until he became more steady in his seat. With a single groom to drive the cart, they set off.
By the consent of the Farozi they were all armed, that the arms chest might be lighter on the cart and not cause its wheels to bog down into the sand. The Rohirrim particularly seemed lighthearted this morning. Half a mark out into the desert Éomer paused his horse and laughed in sheer delight. "This is the means to travel, friends!" he declared. "In the half light I can almost believe I'm riding across the fields of the Mark itself."
"You will think differently when the sun has risen fully," warned Aragorn.
"Perhaps, but for now I am free and with a horse between my legs as is right and proper. Aragorn, my brother, will you spar with me?"
Shaking his head and laughing himself, Aragorn unsheathed Anduril, and there as the dawn brightened in the swift sunrise of the Southlands he and the King of Rohan laughed and sparred, their horses turning and sidling as the swords clashed over the two of them.
The horse An'Éomer rode was indeed accustomed to this, but it was plain that Hirvuiloth was not fully comfortable with the exercise. That he stayed alongside the other grey was solely due to the control kept over him by his rider. At last a final thrust was made just as Hirvuiloth sidestepped, and two swords flew from hands and fell to the sand. Both kings looked down on them and laughed once more, An'Éomer dismounting to retrieve the weapons and return Anduril to its lord. "Not a war horse, that one--not like Roheryn or Harthad or Olórin."
"No, but a good riding horse nonetheless," Aragorn returned, checking his blade and wiping it on his cloak before returning it to its sheath.
The rest of the party had watched with interest, Ankhrabi watching the sidling of young Elfwine's pony with concern. The Lady Lothiriel, who rode nearby, smiled. "Do not worry for the safety of my son. First, you will note Elfhelm is just beside him--should the pony lose its head he'd have Elfwine off the pony and before him before you realized it had happened. Second, for all that he is but three years of age, Elfwine is his father's son and born to be Lord of the Mark one day. Almost before he was dry from the birthing my lord husband had him out to the field where the Mearas graze, giving him to the recognition of the Lords of Horses who share our lands with us and allow our folk to ride and care for theirs."
She laughed. "It is our land I now say, I who was born to the seacoasts of the South of Gondor. Yet the Mark is now my home, also, and with the birth of my son has accepted me as its own."
As they rode on, those of the Rohirrim raised another song in praise of horses and wind and grass, or so the Lady Lorieth explained to the Haradrim. An'Elessar, Hardorn, and Faramir sang along with those from Rohan. Master Ruvemir had a small sketch booklet in his hands, capturing the turn of a head, the angle of an arm as they rode and sang.
Master Isumbard came alongside Lord Rustovrid. "My lord ambassador," he began, "I see the cart has a number of cages of white doves on it. I'll swear one is a cage I saw at the temple of Neryet yesterday. What is that about?"
Rustovrid glanced at the cart, then smiled down on the Hobbit. "Pairs of white doves are usually brought to the temple of Neryet or Annubi on the death of someone loved. They are then taken to the Valley of the Sun by the next group going there, are brought to the temples of one or the other, and allowed to fly free in token of the release death represents. It is believed by many that how the birds fly once they are released indicates what is happening with the soul after death--that if the birds fly West then the one who died is happy with the release and seeks judgement and the delight to come. If they fly East back toward Thetos, then it is believed the one who is gone seeks to reassure those who remain behind that all is well with him. If they fly North then the one who has died is believed to feel lost and confused and seeks guidance. And if they fly South it indicates a wish he'd lived instead."
"Oh." The Hobbit thought for some time, then asked, "What if the birds fly off in different directions from one another?"
"Then the interpretations get more complicated."
Finally Rustovrid said, more seriously, "There are priests who specialize in interpreting the flight of birds. I've seen it done, and it has been uncanny what has been told and how accurate it has been shown to be."
An hour after the rising of the sun, and all were now quiet. King, Queen, Princess, Gimli, Legolas, and Captain Peregrin all wore cloaks of silvery grey-green, fastened with silver leaves enameled green. Benai and those Men who served as guards of honor all wore the robes of bodyguards over their mail and hauberks, while the others wore loose desert robes of various colors and loose white headcloths on the Men.
Isumbard was examining the inner veil to be worn over the face with curiosity. "What is this for?" he asked.
"To cover your mouth and nose when the wind begins to blow the sand into your face," explained Ankhrabi. "All our Men have them as part of the headcloths."
Pippin was immediately interested. "Then, they aren't just to make your soldiers appear more intimidating."
"That they add to that impression is merely a side effect to their purpose, Captain Peregrin."
After a time of riding in silence, Ankhrabi asked, "Where did you learn to prepare duck as you did in my brother's house, Captain Peregrin?"
Pippin laughed. "From my Uncle Saradoc. When they came in with duck from the river, Uncle Sara would always prepare it. When the regular cooks saw him coming that way, ducks in hand, they'd clear out and leave him to it. No question in their minds the Master himself was fixing dinner for himself and his family and personal guests. He took Merry and me with him more than once to teach us, too.
"He'd tried to teach Frodo, but Frodo wasn't that interested. Frodo was a highly competent baker--Bilbo saw to that, and his mushroom soup was to die for; and he could certainly prepare a fine meal. But for himself he'd be almost as happy with a hasty slice of ham and cheese between bread and an apple or two. Was usually too involved in studying or translating to be that interested in watching something simmering for any length of time."
"Then all your people cook?" asked Nefiramonrabi.
The Hobbit nodded. "We learn to cook like the Rohirrim learn to ride--it's second nature to us. My da, his specialty is venison. We haven't many deer in the Shire and usually we leave them strictly alone, for we all love them. When the herds grow large enough they start damaging our crops or the trees, though, we must thin them down some. That's when Da is in his glory. And, I hate to say this, he makes a far better venison roast than does our King there, although there's nothing wrong with our Lord Elessar's venison, mind you."
The King merely smiled down at the Hobbit.
They were not far from the Valley of the Sun when Pippin paused his pony to take a drink from his water bottle. As he corked it again, his face was a bit solemn.
"Is something troubling you, Pippin?" asked the King.
"No, Aragorn--nothing troubling me. It's just that the water tastes of kingsfoil. Sam was pressing the bottle into my hands along with that roll of hithlain rope of his, insisting I might need them, as we left. I think it's just one of those he kept filled for Frodo is all."
An'Elessar nodded, his smile gentle. "Do you have the rope in your saddlebags, then?"
"Yes. You know Sam--he thinks you always ought to be ready for almost anything."
"Yes, bless the practical Samwise Gamgee."
Sa'Amonri, from where he rode beside the Farozi, watched and listened. Yes, he thought as the packed sand of the roadway turned up the ridge to the opening of the valley, they are worthy folk, all of them.