1. Wars and Rumours of Wars
Wars and Rumours of Wars
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. - Matthew 24.6 – The Bible.
Aragorn struggled to concentrate on the report he was supposed to be studying. He felt restless this afternoon. Arwen had an engagement and he missed the comfort of her soothing presence nearby. More than that, he was worried. There had been another incursion of rebel Haradrim across Gondor's borders and Faramir and his men had ridden out to repel them. That had been three days ago and there had been no news. The King was certain he would sense if any ill had befallen the Steward he loved dearly as a son, but even so he fretted.
The King had hoped that the defeat of the Dark Lord would ensure peace, but sadly it was not always so. The Great Khan of Harad abided by the treaty he had sworn with Gondor, but various rebel factions led by one or another of his countless relatives or relatives of the former Khan enjoyed causing trouble.
Ambassador Tahir had explained that the former Khan's tribe still worshipped Sauron and believed he would be able to inhabit a body again if sufficient blood was shed. Khan Janab and his tribe worshipped the benevolent moon god and goddess, but some of his many kinsfolk thought they should rule instead and tried to stir up trouble. One of their favourite ruses was to attempt to incite war between Gondor and Harad. Tahir had also explained that Khan Janab had taken twenty wives and fifty concubines, and had sired many sons, most of whom were at loggerheads with each other.
Aragorn's reverie was interpreted by a servant tapping on the door. Aragorn bade him enter. "Lord Faramir has just arrived, sire," the man announced.
"Tell him to come to me at once," said Aragorn. "Bring food and wine for him and quickly."
A few moments later, Faramir entered the study. He had obviously come straight from the battlefield as his armour was splattered with blood and grime, as was his face. Great dark shadows were under his eyes, giving him a haunted appearance. Aragorn rose from his chair to embrace his friend. For a moment, Faramir clung to him like a drowning man clutching at flotsam.
"I am sorry to come before you like this, but I rode straight from the field, stopping only to change horses," said Faramir.
"No matter. What news, ion nîn?" Aragorn ushered his friend to the couch at the side of the room.
Faramir sat down heavily. "We won the day, but at a cost. Six men fell and a further twenty were sore wounded. They are on their way to the Houses of Healing. Two hundred of the enemy were slain. We offered them terms, but they would not surrender. They preferred to fall on their own swords. The few prisoners we did succeed in taking told a grim tale. One of Khan Janab's sons has joined the Sauron worshippers. He claims to have had a vision in which Sauron told him he would rise again and grant immortality to his followers if they slew at least twenty thousand."
"These are grave tidings indeed," said Aragorn. "It threatens our alliance with Harad if Khan Janab's heirs are returning to the old ways. It was difficult enough to get the Council to agree to treaty and the trade agreements when we thought the ruling clan had utterly denounced Sauron worship."
Just then, the servant brought the refreshments. Faramir took a swallow of the wine. "I sent a messenger to tell Éowyn that I am safe," he said, "then rode straight here to tell you these tidings. They are too sensitive to entrust to a rider. Tahir needs to be told too. He will wish to inform the Khan of these grim developments. I thought I would go to my apartments and make myself more presentable, then go and see him."
"The servants shall prepare a bath for you and I will invite Ambassador Tahir here to partake of an evening meal with us," said Aragorn. He went to the door to give the orders to the servant who had brought the refreshments.
"Will your lady not mind?" asked Faramir.
"She is dining at the Embroiders' Guild Hall," Aragorn replied. "Lady Adiva is there too, telling the members about styles of embroidery in Harad, so no doubt Tahir will be happy to accept the invitation."
"Good," said Faramir. "Thank you. Truth to tell, I will be glad not to have to travel on further errands tonight, for I am sore weary." He drained his glass and rose stiffly to his feet.
"Are you injured, ion nîn?" Aragorn's voice was filled with concern.
"'Tis naught but a few shallow cuts and bruises. Others have fared far worse." Faramir shrugged.
"I have salves that should help," said Aragorn. "I will bring it when you have bathed."
"Thank you, your salves are most effective. But am I not taking you from your work?"
"I can finish this report while you bathe," said Aragorn. "The rest can wait until tomorrow."
When Aragorn visited Faramir's rooms, carrying towels and his satchel of healing supplies, he found his friend hunched over his desk writing. "You should be resting, ion nîn," Aragorn chided gently.
"I was writing to the families of the men I lost today," said Faramir bleakly.
"I have brought my healing supplies," said Aragorn.
"Thank you, if you leave some salve on the table, I shall use some before I go to bed," said Faramir.
"By the look of you, you need it now," Aragorn said firmly. "Éowyn has told me that you always forget salves and potions that she or I have told you to use."
"I am well enough," said Faramir.
"My eyes tell me otherwise," said the King. "You are obviously in pain and your muscles are as tight as a drawn bowstring. Come and lie down and I will apply the salves, and use my healing arts to ease your pain."
"Should I be pampered when six of my men lie dead and twenty are sore wounded?"
"Your suffering aids them not at all," said Aragorn. "The wounded are being well cared for in the Houses of Healing. I will see how they fare on the morrow, but now I would tend your hurts."
Faramir laid down his quill and rose stiffly to his feet. "I cannot think of the right words to say to the bereaved families," he said. "Maybe it will be easier in the morning, but I doubt it. I will accept your offer."
"I brought towels to lay upon your bed," said Aragorn. "Comfrey salve is most effective but tends to stain the sheets."
Faramir made his way to his bedchamber and stiffly divested himself of the robe he was wearing while Aragorn spread the towels.
"Stars!" Aragorn exclaimed when his friend turned around to face him. Faramir's right arm and left shoulder and side were covered in angry purple bruises. They stood out lividly against his pale skin and the white drawers he was wearing. "I thought you said you had a few bruises, Faramir?"
"You must often have seen far worse," said Faramir. He lay down on the bed.
"I have," said Aragorn. "It always pains me to see you hurt, though, ion nîn." He carefully felt the bruises, satisfying himself that they masked no broken bones or other more serious hurts. He then opened the pot of salve and gently began to apply it to the bruises and scrapes. Faramir's muscles remained tensed beneath his touch. Aragorn began to use the Elven healing touches, rubbing his fingertips in soothing circles across Faramir's shoulders and the back of his neck, and then applying a gentle pressure to stimulate the vital organs.
"What troubles you, ion nîn?" the King asked, without pausing in his ministrations.
"I hoped so much that when the war against Sauron was won that it would be an end to fighting," the Steward replied, his voice hardly more than a whisper. "I hoped that my sword and bow would be used only for sport from now on and never again would I raise them in anger."
"You do not have to fight, son of my heart," said Aragorn. "There are captains in plenty who can lead the men in battle."
"How could I ask the men to do what I would not?" Faramir replied. "Fight I must if we are assailed."
"We are two of a kind," said Aragorn. "I expected no other answer from you. Neither would I ask my men to suffer what I would not."
They fell silent apart from a few winces from Faramir as the King teased out especially unyielding knots in his muscles.
"They were so young!" Faramir exclaimed suddenly, his voice full of pain. "Scarcely more than children!"
"Who ion nîn?"
"The Haradrim warriors. They were heavily outnumbered, but most of them refused to surrender, running themselves through with their own blades when we approached, or attacking us so fiercely that we were forced to slay them. Those that fell wounded, were slain by their fellows. So much blood shed and for nothing!"
Aragorn felt him shudder violently beneath his hands.
"I fear that is the custom of the Haradrim, to prefer death to capture or infirmity. It has been thus since the days of your grandsire when I first encountered them and no doubt for generations before that," Aragorn said sadly. "We shall speak to Tahir about what has happened. He will surely send a message to Khan Janab. No doubt he will deal with his son and put a stop to this new uprising."
"I know that, but it troubles me deeply that Khan Janab's kin have turned to the darkness," said Faramir. "Tahir told me that only one tribe, who happened to hold the reins of power during the war, were true believers in Sauron. Yes, members of Janab's tribe fought against us during the war, but they believed they were defending their lands. The last Khan lied that we sought to conquer them and ravish and enslave their women and children."
"I spoke to a woman from Harad soon after the war ended," said Aragorn. "She thought we were monsters who sacrificed her folk to a tree god!"
Faramir laughed mirthlessly.
"No more fretting now, ion nîn," Aragorn said firmly. "We have done everything we can to ensure peace, as has Tahir. We can do no more until he speaks to the Khan. Be easy now." He replaced the lid on the pot of salve and put it on the bedside table. "There now," he said, "that should help the bruises to heal. Now let me see if I can loosen the knots in your back."
Faramir rolled over without protest now. He knew he was fortunate to experience the healing warmth of Aragorn's hands, a touch both loving and soothing. Others might not be so blessed, as to experience Aragorn's treatments, but the King's words were wise and his Steward took them to heart. He needed to be at his best when Tahir arrived so that maybe between the three of them they could think of some way to deal with the latest threat from the rebels. He had said more than he had intended to Aragorn, which was often an effect of Aragorn's treatments, which his friend knew full well how to put to good use. He felt more at peace, though, now the burden was lifted from his heart.
He tried to put the events of the past days from his mind as Aragorn worked on the tight muscles in his shoulders. He tensed as the tightest knots were teased out then relaxed completely into Aragorn's soothing touch, which had the power to heal the mind as well as the body.
By the time, Aragorn had finished his ministrations Faramir was utterly relaxed, limp and sleepy. "I should be getting ready for dinner," he said, forcing his eyes open with a great effort.
"You have a few hours yet," Aragorn replied. "Sleep for a while, ion nîn. I will call you in good time. I shall tell the children a bedtime story while you rest. I promised Arwen that I would." He handed Faramir his sleeping garment then tucked the blankets snugly around his friend and silently left the room.
Aragorn lingered longer in the nursery than he intended. Since Eldarion had met Súlion, his appetite for stories about dragons had become more insatiable than ever with the result that his devoted father spent many an hour thinking up every possible new adventure that the Eastern dragon might be having, in order to entertain his little son. Farawyn was too young to understand much of the stories, but she too remembered their dragon friend and listened intently, cuddling her favourite doll.
At last, the children's nursemaids came to put their young charges to bed. Aragorn made a detour to Faramir's room to awaken his friend. He was relieved that Faramir looked far better when he opened his eyes at the sound of Aragorn's voice.
"I am just about to dress for dinner," the King told his Steward. "I wish I could have let you sleep for longer, but Tahir will be here within the hour."
"I need to speak to him," said Faramir. He scrambled out of bed, moving with far less pain and stiffness thanks to Aragorn's treatments. He reached for his clothes. "The sooner he can warn Khan Janab of the treachery within his own family the better."
There had been insufficient time for the cook to prepare the spicy dishes of Tahir's homeland to honour their guest. Instead, she had prepared a rich spicy sauce to go with the meal of roast venison.
Tahir embraced his friends warmly when he arrived, but his brown eyes were full of concern. "It grieves me deeply, esteemed friends, that rebels from my homeland should have violated your great realm," he said. "I fear the treacherous tribe of Suhayb are forever a thorn in the flesh of our illustrious Khan."
"I have grim tidings," said Faramir. "The prisoners we took after the battle told us that they supported Khan Janab's son, who now believes that the Dark Lord will rise again if sufficient blood is spilled."
"Esteemed friends, I cannot believe this!" Tahir exclaimed.
"You told me yourself, my friend, that Khan Janab so many children he could hardly keep count of them," Aragorn replied.
"That is true, my esteemed friends. Often his kindred rebel against him; but worship the false Lord of Gifts, never! If you but knew the folk of my tribe, you would not believe such lies. Ever we have worshipped the great Lord and Lady of the Moon who have granted us our prosperity."
"It is true, alas," said Faramir. "I heard it with my own ears what the prisoners told me. The invaders also carried a banner with a device of the serpent crowned by the Great Eye. There can be no mistake."
Tahir buried his face in his hands and let out a low moan. He then tore at his outer robe in distress. "Alas, alas!" he cried. "This threatens to destroy my homeland, esteemed friends, if the folk of my tribe are turning to such evil ways! You and your folk will turn against us too and our days of peace and prosperity will be over! The honour of my tribe is besmirched!"
Faramir leaned over and patted Tahir's shoulder. "You will always be my friend, Tahir, whatever happens in your homeland," he said.
"You and your family could make your home in Gondor," said Aragorn. "Whoever rules in Harad, we know you to be a good man who will forever be welcomed at our table."
"Thank you, esteemed friends, you bring me great comfort," said Tahir, though he still looked distressed.
"Come, sit down, and partake of some wine," said Aragorn. He ushered the distraught ambassador to a couch and endeavoured to calm him with some Elven healing touches to his head and neck. Faramir then held the glass of wine to his lips.
"You are so kind, esteemed friends," Tahir said after a few moments when he had somewhat regained his composure. "I fear I bring dishonour upon your dwelling with the actions of my kin."
"You do no such thing!" said Faramir fiercely. Aragorn nodded his agreement.
"What do you plan to do with the prisoners?" asked Tahir suddenly. "It surprises me that you succeeded in taking any alive. It is not our custom to surrender."
"We will destroy their weapons then send them back to Harad," said Aragorn. "Or if they fear to return and swear an oath of loyalty to me and to Gondor they can remain and find work here."
"You are most merciful, esteemed lord," said Tahir.
"We do not harm captives of war," said Aragorn. "If we did, we would be no better than the Dark Lord's minions!"
"I have a favour to ask of you, o gracious one," said the Ambassador.
"Ask and if it be within my power I will grant it," said Aragorn.
"I should like to speak alone with one of the prisoners, if only for a few moments, esteemed lord."
Aragorn raised his eyebrows slightly then nodded. "Of course, I will have one of them brought here on the morrow. It is too late tonight."
"I thank you, esteemed friend."
"It is but a small request to grant, " said Aragorn. "Now let us eat, my friend. My lady would be most surprised if she returned and found we had not yet had dinner!"
Early the next morning, Faramir, accompanied by a group of heavily armed guards, went to where the prisoners were being held in an encampment just outside the City, to collect one of the men for Tahir to interview. The Steward had no idea what his friend intended. Tahir had never before made such a strange request and Faramir trusted him to have a good reason for it. It was difficult to know which prisoner to select. All were young and looked terrified. He selected one at random. The guards dragged the protesting man out of the tent and tied him to a horse.
"There is nothing to fear, lad," Faramir reassured him in his own tongue. "Whatever you might have been told about the Men of Gondor is unlikely to be true."
"The Lord of Gifts will rise again and come to my aid!" said the young man defiantly.
"You have been beguiled with lies," said Faramir. "Sauron is no more and you need no aid. We do not harm prisoners in Gondor. What is your name, lad?"
"I am called Marid," the boy replied. "I have answered your questions, so why do you not kill me now, o slave of a base born tyrant!"
"You will not goad me into eternally silencing you, foolish boy!" Faramir replied coldly. "I warn you, though, should you speak ill of my King again, I shall gag you until we reach our destination."
Marid fell silent and spoke no further word.
When they reached the Citadel, Faramir ordered that Marid be taken into one of the guardrooms. Aragorn and Tahir were drinking tea with the Queen in her solar when Faramir announced that he had brought the prisoner.
"Thank you, esteemed friend. May you never be scorched by the sun!" said Tahir. "I will go and speak to the man now. I ask of you, honoured friends, not to interrupt me whatever you might hear."
"I have promised the prisoner that he will not be harmed," Faramir said somewhat uneasily. "I know you are a man of peace but…"
"Do not fear, esteemed friend." Tahir smiled grimly. "He will suffer neither blow, nor cut, nor bruise at my hands. I give you my word."
"I did not mean I believed that…" Faramir flushed.
"You are a good man, my friend," said the Ambassador. "You show mercy even towards the least deserving."
"We shall wait outside while you question the prisoner," said Aragorn. "Arwen, beloved, we will return shortly."
"Take care, Estel," Arwen warned, but Aragorn was already out of earshot.
"Remember, esteemed friends, I implore you not to interrupt me," said Tahir when the three reached the prisoner's room.
"You have my word," said Aragorn.
King and Steward, together with several guards hovered uneasily outside the closed door. First, they heard only the low measured tones of Tahir's voice and then the prisoner's. Both voices then grew louder and increasingly agitated. Aragorn and Faramir could not make out any words until the prisoner started to scream "Mercy!"
The guards made to enter the room, but the King ordered them to stay where they were.
The prisoner's yells grew louder. Aragorn and Faramir exchanged worried glances. "I cannot permit torture in my realm," said Aragorn.
"Tahir gave his word he would not harm the boy," said Faramir. "I believe we should trust him."
The yells continued, followed by loud sobbing and then a torrent of words. Aragorn and Faramir strained to hear but the occasional word they could make out through the thick oak door made little sense. Aragorn paced impatiently while Faramir stood rooted to the spot, clenching and unclenching his fists.
Suddenly, the door was flung open and Tahir stormed out, his scimitar in his hands; Aragorn and Faramir beheld him with horror for an instant before rushing into the room Tahir had just vacated. A strange sight met their eyes. The prisoner was curled in a corner wailing piteously. There was so sign of a wound on him, but the sleeve had been cut from his scarlet robe, baring his right arm from the shoulder downwards. At the sight of the King and the Steward, he tried to cover his right arm with his left.
"Tell the esteemed Lord King of your treachery, you misbegotten cur!" Tahir snapped. The Ambassador had followed them back into the room, his scimitar now sheathed.
The prisoner said nothing but continued to wail.
"What have you done to him?" Faramir enquired of the Ambassador.
"I asked him to roll up his sleeve," said Tahir. "When he refused, I knew he was not of my tribe, which is also the esteemed Khan's tribe." He grabbed the prisoner's arm and raised it with one hand, indicating a tattoo just above the elbow. "Behold, the mark the sons of Suhayb, may the noonday sun forever blaze down upon them! I told you that no member of my tribe would worship the false Lord of Gifts!"
"Maybe this man simply chose to join the rebellion?" Faramir sounded baffled.
"We fight only beside the brothers of our tribe who carry the same markings," said Tahir.
"But why should the prisoners tell us they were fighting for Khan Janab's son?" asked Faramir.
Tahir glared at Marid. "Tell the esteemed Lord King the full extent of your wicked lies!" he demanded. When Marid simply continued to whimper, he added. "I will cut the robe from your unworthy carcass and show them the marks of your allegiance to the Dark Lord if you do not speak!"
Marid gave a final keening wail then spoke. "Our leader, brother of the most glorious Khan of revered memory, made us draw lots for who would suffer the shame of being taken captive. We were to tell you that son of the unbeliever Janab was behind the rebellion."
"That way he hoped to destroy or at the least weaken the treaties between Harad and Gondor," said Tahir. "My homeland has prospered greatly under the mighty Khan's rule, not least because of our trade with your great realm, esteemed friends. If it were believed that those close to the noble Khan were turning back to the worship of the false Lord of Gifts, the ties with Gondor would weaken and the noble Khan lose the support of the powerful merchant tribe. That would make it easier for the sons of Suhayb to regain the throne."
"I see," said Aragorn. His head was beginning to spin. He considered the politics of Gondor to be complicated enough, but compared with the intrigues within Harad they were a model of simplicity.
Marid crawled towards the King. Faramir and Tahir tensed and reached for their swords. "Speak!" Aragorn commanded.
"When will you kill me, mighty one? asked the boy.
"I am not going to kill you," said Aragorn in the tongue of Harad. "You will be sent home."
"I beg you to kill this dishonoured one!" cried Marid, prostrating himself and clutching at Aragorn's feet.
"No," said Aragorn. "Then it would be I who was without honour."
In reply the boy spat at him and cried, "A curse upon you, misbegotten son of a jackal!"
"You will not goad me into killing you," said Aragorn calmly. "Stop this foolish behaviour!"
Marid started to wail and sob. "I cannot go home. They will dishonour my mother and sisters and slay my brothers in the cruellest fashion."
"He speaks the truth," said Tahir. "The leader of his tribe is a cruel man. As for the esteemed Khan, he would spare the lives and honour of the women in his family, but Marid and his brothers would be slain and the rest of the family shunned. He is doubly a traitor, both to the great Khan and to his own tribe."
Faramir studied the prisoner and saw not a hardened criminal, but a weak and foolish boy, led astray by the lies of his elders.
"Maybe he could stay here?" he suggested in Westron. "We have many of his people living in the city."
"He would be an outcast," said Tahir. "The merchants who dwell here have little time for the likes of him."
"I need strong men to help rebuild the North," said Aragorn. "I will send him there, at first under close guard. He is young and can make a new life for himself if he works hard."
"A wise and merciful judgement, esteemed King," said Tahir in Westron. "Tell him, though that it is your punishment. He will accept that better.
Aragorn sternly informed Marid in his own tongue what he intended to do with him. He then placed one hand on the boy's head and the other over his heart, trying to heal the darkness in his spirit.
Marid raised his eyes and looked at the king, but the boy's mind was too clouded for Aragorn to know if he had helped him or not. He could only hope.
He called to the guards and bade them take the boy away and provide him with food and some clothes in the style worn in Gondor. The boy simply stared at him.
King, Steward, and Ambassador heaved a collective sigh of relief.
"How it gladdens my heart that our treaty between our peoples is secure," said Aragorn. "I have much to thank you for, my friend." He clapped Tahir on the shoulder. "Your wisdom has spared us much grief."
"Do you not recall the day I showed you the tattoos I carry, esteemed friends?" said Tahir. "All the Men of Harad, and most especially the warrior clans carry such markings. If he had been of my tribe, he would willingly have rolled up his sleeve. I knew though, that no son of the Wakil tribe would ever worship the false Lord of Gifts."
"One thing still puzzles me," said Faramir. "I recall well your tattoos, my friend, but you bore the sign of the sun, not the moon."
"Ah, but I do," said Tahir. "The symbols of the glorious Lord and Lady of the Night Sky are tattooed on the soles of my feet, so that my Lord and Lady support me wherever I walk. Now, esteemed friends, I shall return home to my fair blossom and send a message to the glorious Khan to warn him of this latest plot. The ringleaders will soon know his justice!"
With those words, he embraced Aragorn and Faramir and took his leave after soliciting a promise that they and their ladies would soon visit.
"I too will be on my way," said Faramir. "I shall have happier tidings than I had hoped for to share with Éowyn."
"First you must share the midday meal with Arwen and me, then afterwards I need to apply more salve to your bruises before you depart."
"Very well, ada," said Faramir. "Your salve eased my hurts, but the news that we are not facing a war with Harad is salve for my soul."
"What better salve for the soul could there be?" said Aragorn.
"Your bruises look less angry today," said Aragorn. After an enjoyable noonday meal during which he had told Arwen of the morning's events, he was examining Faramir's bruises again. "Comfrey is most effective," he said as he started to apply a generous amount.
"As are your healing powers," said Faramir. He lay back while Aragorn continued his ministrations then said, "I wonder what will become of Marid now?"
"He will be too closely watched to pose any threat to our people," said Aragorn, as he skilfully massaged the salve into Faramir's shoulders. "The Valar alone know whether he and his fellow prisoners will prosper in Gondor or end up taking their own lives. It depends on how deeply their minds have been corrupted by their leaders. Such a tragic waste of young lives. Marid is hardly even of an age to wield a sword."
"Many more lives would have been threatened if we had not uncovered the plot against Khan Janab," said Faramir. "The Valar be praised for men of peace like Tahir."
"And like you, ion nîn," said Aragorn. "Would that there were more like you, who are reluctant to fight unnecessarily."
"When I fight, it is to protect the land and the people I love," said Faramir.
"Evil knows not the meaning of love," said Aragorn.
"But love is always stronger in the end," said Faramir. "Therefore we can live with hope."