19. Honors Bestowed
Chapter 18 Honors Bestowed
That night Incanus was guest of honor at a jubilant celebration. First he was treated to a parade of all the people, from tallest to smallest, dressed in whatever finery they could find. They'd woven flowers and vines to wear tied about their waists, necks and brows. Several of the finest garlands were draped over his shoulders, and a crown of autumn leaves in red and gold was upon his head.
The music started. Rassu was a famous musician in his home country; at his suggestion they had fashioned instruments. They had made drums of skin fitted tightly over hollowed logs, flutes carved from bones, rattles of gourds filled with pebbles. Rassu began in his deep resonant voice. The others joined in the song in unison; then their voices seemed to split and weave into an intricate tapestry of harmonious sound. Dorlan and Tirel heard it from their camp.
"Come on, lieutenant," Tirel said. "Don't you want to see this?" The men of Gondor crept close to watch the show.
Front and center Incanus sat on a makeshift chair and watched with pleasure. Men and women alike were dancing before him, their feet stamping and their arms raised, floating like waves. It was all so beautiful, so joyous--and their smiles! Where would he ever see such smiles again? Northerners rarely smiled so warmly. He thought again, as he had centuries ago on that first long trek, that perhaps he'd chosen the wrong mortal form. Perhaps he would have been better off to come to Middle Earth as an ebony-skinned southerner. He felt a kinship with these open-hearted people that he had not often found in the cold North.
He leaned back and stretched out his legs, clad now in green, tucked into his weather-beaten boots. The dancers came forward one by one and each placed a necklace of polished beads around his neck, dyed with bright colors. He fingered them and counted a dozen strands. How had they done all this? When had they managed it? He was overcome.
The show continued. The five men of Kutumi's people, the herders and lion hunters, brought him to his feet and presented him with a wooden cup filled with a creamy red concoction. If it was of milk and blood, they refused to say what type. The wizard gazed down with veiled revulsion; then he closed his eyes and drank it all at once. They cheered and slapped him on the back. Hmm, not as bad this time, he thought. Perhaps he had become a little more tolerant as he'd aged. He looked into the empty cup. One eyebrow rose. Or maybe it was Suli's breast milk.
Kutumi produced a shield and a tall spear. The shield was made of leather drawn around a wooden frame, and on it was painted the image of a lion leaping over a bolt of blue lightning. Kutumi and the others jumped into the air, chanting in their own tongue. Then they encircled Incanus and thrust the spear and the shield into his hands.
"You are now a member of our people," Kutumi said.
"I am honored, my friends," Incanus replied as he bowed solemnly.
Kutumi muttered into his ear. "We decided it was not necessary to have you pass through the ritual that marked each of us as a man. We concluded a sorcerer was exempt from such rules."
He smiled slyly. Incanus nodded in relief, eyes wide. He'd noticed the way these five men were different on bathing days and knew exactly which ritual Kutumi meant.
Of the women, only Nelika and Januno were from the same country as Kutumi. Two could hardly perform the dance properly, but they did their best. It was hypnotic and slow. Their only accompaniments were their own low singing and Kutumi with a steady drumbeat. Januno was ten years older than any of the other women, but she danced every bit as seductively as Nelika. The entire group sat mesmerized as the two women moved sinuously, stepping closer and closer to the wizard. Tirel grinned and jabbed an elbow into Dorlan's side; the lieutenant flushed. Then Januno twirled and bowed to high-pitched calls. She left the dance floor. Nelika was alone.
She was dancing just for him, bent at the waist, her arms outstretched, her eyes level with his. Her eyes sparkled as she stared at him. The drumbeat grew faster, and her feet began to move swiftly, but she still leaned forward, her arms wide, her dark full breasts barely covered.
"Will you look at that," Tirel said as he watched hungrily. "Wish I was him…"
Dorlan glared. "That's Mithrandir sitting there! Don't you know who he is?"
"Whoever he is, I'd sure like to be wearing his boots tonight."
"Be quiet, you idiot! This doesn't mean what you think it does!"
Incanus stared into Nelika's black eyes. The same coy smile he had seen a month earlier was there. He swallowed hard. What was he to do? Surely this dance had some significance, and he was to play a role—but what? She drew closer. He smelled her scent, mixed with sweat. Her hands almost brushed against him, then in a moment her circle widened and she pulled away.
Suddenly he heard a voice muttering in his ear. It was Januno.
"You're supposed to get up and take her hand, you foolish sorcerer! She can't stop dancing until you raise her up. Get out there, before you disgrace her!"
He turned, but Januno had stepped back. She gestured and scowled, then grinned. Incanus hesitantly rose to his feet. As Nelika's circle closed in on him again, he suddenly reached out and grasped her hand. She halted and held perfectly still, as if frozen in an elaborate bow. The crowd gasped in unison; then everyone roared as Nelika straightened and twirled right into his arms. She was panting with the effort of the dance. He felt her overheated body heaving against him. Nelika's glistening face was a few inches from his. She looked into his eyes, then slid away from him and ran off. She glanced back over her shoulder, saw him standing in silence and smiled with what looked like triumph.
"Now what do you think it means, lieutenant?" Tirel laughed. Dorlan fumed and gnawed on his knuckle.
Incanus remained where Nelika had left him, his hands at his sides. He'd been tricked into this performance; he was certain of it. Januno had lied, and Nelika had put her up to it. Or had she?
The crowd around him continued to vigorously laugh and cheer. He saw Kutumi sitting across from him, the drum now silent between his knees. Kutumi stared back for a moment, his face hard. Then suddenly he beat out a rapid rhythm, and he slowly smiled at the sorcerer.
The celebration came to a close with a song by the five children, led by Nod. The oldest girl, about eleven, held the newborn in her arms. They stood in a semi-circle around Incanus and sang. He translated it later for Corli. He was no poet. He could not make it sparkle with the rhyme and dancing rhythms that the children had used.
Incanus, Incanus! You gave us our freedom.
Wind and lightning you command. Falcon brings your news.
Gentle as a gazelle, fierce as a lion, wise as an elephant.
Now we must part. We will always remember.
Incanus, Incanus! You are in our hearts forever.
When the song was over, each child came forward into the wizard's arms. Nod stayed the longest. He placed his hand on Nod's cheek and whispered.
"I'll never forget you, Nod. I am very proud of you."
Nod wriggled from the wizard's grip and ran.
Incanus rose to his feet again. The party was over. Tirel and Dorlan slipped away under the cover of darkness and back to their own camp. But all the adults wished to speak to their guide individually. They formed a long line. Each one was given his attention for however long they desired. He was weary from the long night, and his chest ached from all the embraces, but he hid it as the last four approached.
It was Farased, Suli and her baby, Kutumi and Nelika. Incanus sighed and smiled at his friends.
"I don't think I can say good-bye to the four of you, not yet. Let's wait until morning."
Suli yawned. The others laughed.
"Come, Incanus. You haven't yet shared an uninterrupted evening by our fire."
Kutumi took one arm, and Nelika took the other. The touch of Nelika's hand was like a shock of lightning. He knew he couldn't stay with them, no matter what the dance had meant. He waited until they were out of earshot of the others, then he slipped out of their grasp.
"I think it would be best if I didn't join you. I'll sleep over there." He motioned vaguely into the dark.
"It's already chilly. You'll be more comfortable by the fire," Kutumi smiled.
"I…I don't think so."
Nelika glared at her husband. "Kutumi, you didn't speak to him, did you? Last month, when I was called away to Suli! You didn't tell him, did you?"
Kutumi growled. "You tell him, woman. You're better at talking than I am."
"You are a scoundrel and a coward, husband," she laughed. She turned to Incanus. "No wonder you took so long when I was dancing just now! Kutumi was supposed to explain everything. He was supposed to ask you to stay with us for a special reason, Incanus. You see, I have chosen you. We missed our opportunity last month, two nights in a row! He and I have had to stay away from each other for a whole month again. It has been hard, very hard indeed. Now you are leaving in the morning to go north, and we will go south."
She smiled and leaned toward him, and her eyes burned. He thought his heart and body would burst into flame.
"Tonight is our last chance," she whispered.
He could hardly believe that she had dared express aloud the desire he had been struggling to suppress, and right in front of her husband! Yet Kutumi smiled benignly.
"I thought you'd be confused. You see, Nelika, even a sorcerer can be confused. Incanus, in our country, men become brothers when they lie with the same woman, especially if she bears them both a child. Nelika tells me that now is her most fertile time. Our son waits for us in our homeland. We hid him well at the first word that the slavers were coming. You would honor us to give him a brother. We would take part of you home with us. My father did the same for his brother of the heart, who was my real father. They were joined by a bond stronger than blood." Kutumi placed his arm across the wizard's shoulder. "Incanus, honor us. Become my brother."
"But...but…" He tried to think of some way this could possibly all make sense, some way it might be real. "Just now, after the dance…" Incanus said. "Kutumi, the look on your face said anything but 'become my brother.'"
Kutumi gazed at him solemnly. "I love my wife. For a moment—and it is only natural—I was jealous. It has been quite a few years since she danced like that for me."
Nelika turned to him and clasped his arm. "I will do so again, Kutumi, anytime you wish it. I am yours, husband," she said huskily. She looked at Incanus, but did not let go of Kutumi's arm. "Do you understand now?"
"But…" He wavered. "In the north it's just the opposite. Men who find that they've slept with the same woman often hate each other, and hate the woman even more. And what of Corli? She'll be angry and hurt…"
Nelika's voice fell low.
"But Incanus, we know you don't really come from the north. You come from elsewhere. You are not of this world. And why must Corli know if it would only hurt her? You will only be with her for a little while, as time is counted for you. Isn't it true?"
He looked at her, startled, then at Kutumi. They watched him. He thought of Corli. Faintly he heard the voice of Curumo admonishing him not to indulge his soft-heartedness. His eyes strayed back to Nelika's.
A few minutes later two figures stood whispering in the darkness.
"Did you put Januno up to that?"
She giggled. "I would have, if I'd known that Kutumi hadn't explained things to you. I was beginning to get very tired out there!"
"I knew I was supposed to do something, but I wasn't sure just what. And I'm not sure I would have budged if I'd known what it meant…"
One figure moved closer. "You knew exactly what it meant! You're no different than any man. You are all such liars."
"Hmm. Then perhaps you want to change your mind…"
"And miss a chance to honor my husband?"
There was a pause. "If you do this because…because he commands you…"
A laugh rang out. "Januno was right--you are a fool. I make my own decisions. Didn't you hear me? I chose you." The voice fell. "Now it is up to you. What do you choose?"
There was no reply as two shadows merged into one.
In the morning lieutenant Dorlan was a little surprised to find that Mithrandir was still sleeping when he arrived in the southerners' camp.
"No one has had the heart to wake them, they're so peaceful."
Farased whispered as he pointed out where the wizard slept. He was curled up in the same blanket as Nelika, and neither one appeared to have a stitch on! The man of Gondor's eyes opened wide. So Tirel was right! Here was a part of the legend of the Istari that he had never heard told. It was more than strange; it seemed a sacrilege, somehow. And Dorlan could have sworn that the tall woman Nelika was attached to the handsome man Kutumi. Yet what seemed oddest of all was that Kutumi appeared as unperturbed as the rest of them. They all just went about the business of preparing for departure as if nothing unusual was happening at their feet.
The sun rose above the trees. It was getting late. They really ought to be going. But no one dared disturb the sleeping pair. Dorlan had made up his mind to go over to them when the wizard stirred at last.
"Uhn, what time is it?" he yawned.
He stretched his arms, thinking that the previous night had been an excellent remedy for aches, among other delightful things. Nelika was already awake. She had been watching him. She thought enviously of Corli, wishing she might have more than just one night of pleasure with this man. She snuggled against him, running her fingers through the strange hair on his chest. He brought his hand down and traced over the pattern of scars on her face. Dorlan couldn't bear it. He blushed and walked out of the range of hearing.
No one else bothered. In fact, they were all watching them rise with sly smiles on their faces. Everyone knew about the customs of the herdsmen. Tirel grinned broadly. He knew he'd been right. He was intensely curious, both about the idea of a wizard taking a lover and the reaction of the people around him. It was very interesting. It got under your skin, like the music. Maybe he would have to go south one day.
Nelika and Incanus were laughing softly together. Kutumi finally approached.
"All right, you two! You're holding everyone up. We must be leaving!"
The wizard turned scarlet as he realized that everyone was watching.
"Don't be embarrassed, we're jealous! We all wish we'd been chosen!" Farased laughed.
He gazed up at Farased, startled. Nod was sitting on his shoulders, grinning and waving. It struck him how natural the boy looked there. He sat up halfway and looked around. Nelika lounged beside him like a cat. There was nothing made of green cloth anywhere in sight.
"All right, where are my clothes?" he demanded. Snickers ran through the crowd. "Oh, no--don't tell me! On the last day, you'd do this to me?"
Nelika grinned at him from inside the blanket. He glared at her.
"Don't look at me!" she cried. "When would I have had a chance to steal your clothes? You kept me busy all night!"
The rolling laughter was loud enough to reach Dorlan where he stood across the road. Finally he turned to look, and even the proper young lieutenant laughed. He could just glimpse the sight of two naked figures sharing one blanket between them, one masculine and pale, the other dark brown and undeniably female, holding hands as they scampered through the crowd.
Fully clothed and any remaining pride thoroughly dashed to pieces, Incanus at last took his leave of Suli, Farased, Kutumi and Nelika, clasping their hands and embracing them. He stood by as they took their places in the wagons. Nelika was weeping, as she had wept on the day they met this strange man. He gazed straight into her eyes one last time. Then he unwound Rubeo's traces from the wagon, mounted and trotted north.
He turned at the sound of a young boy's voice.
"Grey Man, Grey Man!"
Nod was running in the dust. The wizard jerked up on the bridle and halted. He swung from the saddle and knelt in the road. Nod threw himself into the man's embrace. They held each other for a long minute. Then he pulled the boy's arms away and kissed him on his brow. He mounted again and Nod stood weeping as he rode away. The sound of voices wafted after him.
Incanus, Incanus! You gave us our freedom.
Now we must part. We will always remember.
Incanus, Incanus! You are in our hearts forever.
He did not look back.