1. For Want of Roses
"The good man's bonds are as the rose:
Swift to bite who strays,
Beautiful to behold –
Like the Sacred Fire.
"And he is the one well-adorned:
Like the rose bush in spring,
Many are his bonds that he upholds –
Praise the Giver!
"Let him not approach the altar
Who has no love of roses.
We do not know him,
Who fears to be bound
To khan and to kin."
- excerpt, The Precepts of Harad, c. 200 S.A.
"Plant a hedge-rose round my heart
That I may know you without trespass.
A kha-leha, let that be our bond –
As sweet as sharp as sure!
"They may strip me of all else.
Still, my heart will testify:
My wounds shall speak,
And in them, they shall know you
By the rose."
- Nai Majhindanyenu
hymn attributed to the a-lehani slave-initiate, Majhindanyë, c. 1030-1050 T.A.
From the wall of Gate Town in Dol Amroth, one could see down to the great harbor, see the white-furled sails of all the ships there. One could see, too, the line of winking lights in the gathering dusk, and the wind carried the swell of voices singing up even to the coltish figure who stood atop the wall.
Brand leaned forward, and though he knew not the words, he hummed softly, trying to follow the unfamiliar melody as the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the waves. Intent as he was, he didn't notice the other who came to join him until a beringed hand settled upon the stone beside his. Brand started and looked up to find the Prince of Dol Amroth gazing out at the lights.
"Atsehn hremari," Imrahil murmured without taking his eyes from the harbor. He laid his hand upon Brand's shoulder, and the boy, taking it as a prompt, turned back to stare at the lanterns as well. And:
Atsehn hremari, Brand thought to the one among the many in that line that had brought them both hither to watch...
The day goes down in a fierce heat that leaches off the streets, making the beggars limp and mince. The khan's men, with their hard eyes, watch in stony silence and finger their blades. Still, men gather, and women, too: goodwives and spinners, maidens and nurses; merchants and tradesmen and herders and farmers; rag-girls and dust-boys; a pair of harlots with their veils cast for once over their faces; foreigners bound to no khan, and slaves but one bond better than they – all of them mingling in a sweat of humanity, there in Bakshir, where it all began, and every year begins anew.
From the perfumed doorway of the house where he stands to be seen, the Khandian's new slave boy looks upon the celebrants, breathes the smell of them in, and mouths the words as the lanterned line of them passes, singing their first profession:
A leha! A kha-leha!
You have called and we have come
In you we stand together
And proclaim that we are one.
You wrote our names in Fire
Your name's writ with our blood
Now bind us and unblind us
In your Light – O let it flood!
That we may tell the tale of days
Long past, but now renewed
When your servants walked among us
And brought us home to you.
A leha! A kha-leha
You have claimed and you have sealed,
Avowed and bound in you,
we'll stand and never fear to yield!
The Prince had asked Andrahar to join him in his study earlier that week, and when he'd dismissed the esquire serving that evening, he'd planted himself before the sideboard, considered his options, and plucked one forth. Satisfied with his choice, Imrahil had handed Andrahar the bottle on his way to an overstuffed leather chair.
"Kheliss?" Andrahar had favored Imrahil with a puzzled look, though he had dutifully filled two glasses. "Is there some occasion?"
"None, but that I wish you well in your endeavors, that you may know joy in your triumphs and perseverance in your trials, that you may do honor to your vows that maintain the whole," his oath-brother had answered smoothly, in flawless Haradric.
"Neham khenaneraiya zéhurastha, 'Ndra-tiru."
His mother lights the candle, and sweet cardamom smoke steals about the room. The flame glows in the depths of their eyes, fire mirroring fire as they gaze at each other over that little light.
Then she smiles, kisses his brow, and wishes him: "In your vows may you find the promise of joy, my son."
Andrahar had stared at his oath-brother, nonplussed, then said the first thing that had come to mind:
"You are six days early."
"Ah, but the week's duty roster must be settled tonight," Imrahil had replied lightly, though the grey eyes that had fixed on him had been rather more serious. The Prince had gently prised his glass from his oath-brother's hand and pointed to the chair before him. Andrahar had sunk rather warily down onto it, and, still confused and increasingly unsettled, set his drink aside.
"It was settled yestereve. Esteven already has that day and the next free," he had assured his liegelord.
"And I shan't take them from him, but I do not speak of his schedule," Imrahil had answered, and raised a brow at him.
"Feast needs fast," the Precepts hold and so the afternoon passes in an haze of heat and hunger. All the household is still. The stones sweat, and all within their shade count the hours 'til relief – and celebration.
In the slave quarters, Andrahar sits and combs cotton, while Ariyë's wheel keeps time that sounds in his ears as the children's rhyme: Feast needs fast, feast needs fast, eve to eve, 'til dawn at last. His mother hums under her breath as the hours of Renewal coil up on themselves, evening to evening to the dawn beyond, like thread on the spindle.
The Prince had looked expectantly at him.
"Imri," Andrahar had protested, "I have not kept rite for years. Why – ?"
"For precisely that reason," Imrahil had said, and taken a sip of the kheliss. "You've not kept it in years. Now seems an opportune moment to make an exception."
Andrahar had leaned his head in his hand, and felt the length of his day, spent running esquires ragged, and willed himself to patience with this... non-sequitur.
"Perhaps I should have told you before," he had said then, "but even when I did, I was not always... involved. There were times when I professed nothing."
"Yet you did go, and always for atsehn hremari." Imrahil had taken another sip, eyes still intent upon him.
"For the sake of a friend," Andrahar had insisted quietly.
Imrahil had cocked his head slightly. "Do you consider me any less?"
Prayer and practice alone, the Khan's Children hold, can bind the whole together, from high to low. Daily devotion guides the honorable among the fissures that threaten to break the world and mankind upon them. There is no surety else.
There is no surety, say the a-lehani. Not in this world.
And so the unbound, honorless out-caste, with no place among men, must be delivered from it.
Andrahar should have died that day in Harad, but deliverance took a stranger form – indeed, a stranger's form. He would have bound himself with Fire to Imrahil for that salvation – from death and from dishonor – had the Prince commanded it. He would have done it gladly.
But Gondor is another world. Imrahil had not insisted – had not asked, even. And Andrahar finds that here, prayer's power fades – devotion makes him stumble, feels like ill-fitting clothes in his new life among the Prince's servants.
Some things cannot be united – so Harad teaches. One must choose.
His choice was made for him the moment Imrahil took him from the executioner's ring, and piety slipped almost painlessly away.
Almost. For though Harad and Gondor cannot be united, because they cannot be united, still the two remain, one the other's lawless revenant, who peers eerily from time to time through the eyes of others. Grace and disaster, such coincidences, and he never knows which it will be...
"I don't understand." Brand's puzzlement had been a palpable thing, and Andrahar had sighed inwardly.
"I will be away all that night, Brand," he had replied. "I would rather you stayed with your uncle and cousins." But the boy had shaken his head.
"I meant, sir, that I don't understand why you are going," his ward had explained. "You didn't go take bitter herbs on the Evenday Recanting, and you skipped the Solstice celebration in December – though I suppose that was because you always have Yuletide duties in the Great Hall then. But you didn't go to the Greening Days last year either, or any gatherings for the Fall Evenda– um, there are lots of Haradrim in Pelargir, sir." Brand had interrupted his recitation of devotional failings to address the queer look Andrahar had been giving him.
"Of course," his guardian had responded, just a little shortly. Brand had ducked his head, and Andrahar had bitten his tongue, counted to five, then reached and laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. Grey eyes all too familiar had lifted to look back at him, as he had replied, with considerably less ire, "I go because I've been asked to go."
"Oh." A beat, then: "Could I not come with you?"
In the khan's house, each day begins and ends in the solemn rhythm of dutiful devotion: sunrise, sun rites; break-fast, thanksgiving; midday, the rite of submission; supper, thanksgiving; evening, repentance and collecting of alms for the morrow's giving. Ritual orders the day, binds up the whole in a steady concentration of the hours, like a great, knotted prayer cord.
And like the heart's diastole, that sighs quietly around that steady pulse, the whispered prayers of his mother – in the quiet of her chambers, in the stillness of a moment, when hands grow tired at the loom, there are couplets and mantras that remember her to the Fire-that-cleanses, the Fire-of-compassion that burns hot blue at the center of the flame. Sometimes, she does not even light a candle or go to one of the votive fires, just opens her hands and prays her heretic prayers – beautiful as they are deadly.
For they cannot be one, that doubled beat at the heart of the house cannot be one – so it goes among the wives, so 'tis said among their sons and daughters. There is one whole that must be upheld, and the Fire will cleanse what is impure. What should not have been, it will not be forever – so they say, and care not if the fatherless, no-house boy, sign and symbol of a union of warring rites in wanting flesh that should not be, hears.
For the slave boy, with his a-lehani name, is no one – he has no place at the house altar, where worlds and ways are ordered and kept. His the duty of submission only, and submit he does, every day, for his small place. Submit he does to the summons of the deaf-mute valet, who brings him one day to his lord, who cannot be his father. There are no wives, no true sons or daughters, only the khan, who bids him sit before him at the altar, and with a wave, dismisses even the servants. Then when they are alone, he smiling commands:
"Renewal comes soon to us all – atsehn hremari! Tell me the tale of those days, child. Tell me why your mother gave you such a name."
The boy knows then that it is not the khanate rite, though the altar is lit. Dark eyes widen, for this is blasphemy, but one does not refuse the khan. And it is dreadful pride, but he wants to please like a true son, to have this little place to be a son loyal to both his parents. His heart pounds, as with his lord – his father in this forbidden space – listening, he makes his profession: "A leha, a kha-leha..."
On the field, his word is law – here means here, there means there, now means now, and no means no, finally and always. That is what command means.
Matters were less firm and final off of it, however. Brand had not disputed him outright, but he had not liked the 'no' – that had been clear from the vague, confused air of disappointment that had seemed to hang about the house, like creeping fog.
The boy had striven to please still – had been diligent in his labors and studies, though he had made a habit, over the next few days, of "artlessly" practicing Haradric in Andrahar's hearing. As aggrieved reminders went, it could have been worse, and since he'd had no intention of explaining himself further, he had been able to afford to indulge it so long as Brand's labored efforts had not been deliberately painful.
"Wishing in Haradric is hard," Brand had told him, after stumbling over the subjunctive several times.
"We are not a very wishful people," Andrahar had allowed, but dry jest had passed over frustrated young heads, or else turned them elsewhere.
"But you wish for me to stay at the keep tomorrow night," Brand had pointed out.
"Brand – "
"And you wish you could stay there, too," the boy had pressed doggedly forward, then cocked his head up at his disconcerted guardian and asked: "Why do you not wish to go, sir, if even your friend invites you?"
So perhaps he could have mentioned that it had not been an invitation, but he'd not been eager, with Brand still growing into the idea that Imrahil was common family to them both, to lay open the contentious origin of his sudden religious impulse. He'd simply not counted upon the lad's interest in a rite that touched him not at all – though perhaps he ought to have. For he'd chosen the boy, and the boy knew it, and had in his turn chosen.
The plaintive look turned upon him had needled at him then, like an old, forgotten wound warning of its presence, of unquiet days to come.
"It is a private matter," he had heard himself say. As evasions went, it had been neither artful nor dishonest – it had simply been a wall and an end to the matter.
In the face of it, Brand had excused himself to do the sums and divisions his tutor had assigned, and Andrahar had said something about checking them later. They had gone about their business, and by supper, the air had cleared so that their evening meal had been filled with arithmetic matters, 'til Andrahar had indulged the lad's evident boredom with a diversion into trebuchet tables and mechanics, which had kept them at table another hour or so.
Afterward, Brand had said his good-night, but lingered to add: "About earlier – I didn't mean to pry, sir."
"I know you did not, lad," he had said.
Brand had accepted this absolution with a nod, but had seemed to steeled himself. No wonder, given the question that had then tumbled forth: "Is it because of me that you don't want to go?"
"Of course not," Andrahar had been quick to say. That had seemed to relieve the boy, but Andrahar had found himself asking, perplexed: "Why do you wish to go, lad? You're no part of Harad." Brand had ducked his head at that.
"No... but you are going," the lad had said, and paused a moment ere once more bidding him good-night. And as soon as Brand had gone, and his door had shut, his guardian had leaned his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands.
The wives and their children prophesy rightly: what should not be, will not be forever. They have but to wait twelve years, and then, to honor their late lord, they purge the house of all that had perverted his reign. The slave-concubine, with her heretic ways, dies as traitors must, and as for her fatherless whelp...
In his new life, he may rejoice that he has attained the place appropriate to him. On his knees, not even one step up from the floor, this is his place within the whole: let him maintain it honorably.
Come dawn after his first night, he cannot even maintain himself, and throws up in a corner of the slave quarters. The others say nothing, do nothing unless it is to move away – one only comes to help, a Khandian boy, who blots the mess silently.
"It tastes the same coming up," Andrahar pants sickly, horrified.
"Here," the other says, and hands him an apple. "Eat. And then come pray with me." And when Andrahar looks at him in confusion, the other says, shyly, "I am called Bilaam. We have the same name."
The same name... and so across lands and languages, the same faith. His mother's faith, now all the tie he has to hold the halves of his small life together.
So he obeys, and for three years, keeps the dawn rites with Bilaam. And when one day, Bilaam poisons himself, he prays the vigilances – for his life or for his death, Andrahar honestly does not know, as, under orders, he struggles to walk his friend up and down the slave quarters.
But later, on the streets of Umbar, the out-caste Bakshiri whore remembers Bilaam in his prayers, and begs for both of them a terrible boon:
A kha-leha, O God-the-giver, make me a stone, that I may feel no more!
One day he will purge himself of such dishonorable desire, but in the dark and aching nights, such blasphemous prayer is the one, fragile thread that binds him to something in this world and that he cannot lose.
Not even should his prayers be answered.
Imrahil had proved to be of no use whatsoever in resolving the problem Brand had so unwittingly handed him. Having pushed his reluctant oath-brother into this observance – ostensibly for Andrahar's own sake – he had had suddenly nothing but deference to his own judgment in all things pertaining to it. If Andrahar wished Brand to remain with the family in the keep, then Imrahil was happy to have the lad; if he preferred to take the boy along, then he had the Prince's blessing.
Well and good, but such deference had done naught to touch on the unsettled ambivalence of Andrahar's preference, unless to confirm him in the feeling that his own participation was likely ill-advised. But ill-advised or no, there, his liegelord ruled him, and Andrahar had not particularly liked how such care as Imrahil conceived for him bred troubles.
All of which had meant that he had not been well-disposed to listen when, the morning before atsehn hremari began, Esteven had hailed him in their native tongue to ask for a word, and begun with:
"I heard that you had asked release for the days of Renewal, Captain."
"You heard wrongly," had been his brusque and immediate response.
"Then will you not keep rite, sir?" The younger man had sounded confused then, taken aback. For his part, Andrahar had regretted his own distemper, too quick to answer, and that needed now some explanation – one not too baldly open, preferably.
"I will keep it," he had said; "But I did not ask for the time."
Since Esteven was neither a simpleton nor ignorant of the Swan Knights' chain of command, it had taken him the space of a startled heartbeat to understand what that had meant. His eyes had widened a bit with the realization. "Brand said you were going for a friend..."
"Brand does not need to know everything," Andrahar had replied, somewhat sharply, and watched the other digest that as well. Though his parents had given Esteven a darker complexion than one found among most Gondorians, his grandmother's Dúnadan blood had tempered that heritage, which had let the flush to his cheeks show, as it had come clear to him that with his questions, he'd blundered into a snake's nest.
"I apologize, Captain, I hadn't meant to intrude." Esteven had retreated immediately. "I had thought only to invite you to join my family to break fast, and to say that Brand would be welcome, too, if you wished him to join us in the morning, but..."
To trample on goodwill was an especially egregious sort of ingratitude, particularly given the occasion, and Andrahar had made himself take a mental step back, recalling himself to courtesy with no little pang of shame.
"Nay, do not apologize," he had told him; "You came with hospitality only, and I spoke you ill. Forgive me, Esteven." The younger man had smoothly flicked a wrist, as if to cast all their words aside.
"Of course, sir." There had then followed a long, awkward silence, as both men had struggled to find an end to the conversation, and a graceful exit from each other's company. But if Esteven were no fool, he also was not without curiosity, and he knew Andrahar in ways others did not – could not – know him. If any man in the ranks might have a reason and a right to question his commander on so intimately Haradric a matter as this, it was he.
"You did not ask for the time," Esteven had said at length and frowned worriedly. "Then is there any desire in you to do this, Captain, if I may ask without offense?"
He had been thirty-eight years the reprobate and would have been thirty-nine years one with scarcely a thought, but for Imrahil. No was easily said, and swift to say, and in so many ways true.
Yet it had been quiet in the stables for long ere Esteven, sensing his moment, had bidden Andrahar good morning.
Who passed through the Fire
Who drowned in the Waters
Wretched am I
Who suffer and wail
With "No!" ever upon my tongue
Break my body!
Shatter my soul!
Scatter my ash
Upon the seas!
Only teach me,
One time and
To say, "Yes!"
He had been glad that Peloren had given Esteven charge of a long ride for the junior esquires. It had spared them both sight of each other the rest of the day, for if Andrahar had not been eager to take a second look in the mirror that Esteven had put before him, no doubt Esteven had had no desire to be subject to his captain's brusqueness.
Yet though out of sight, the young captain had not been out of mind, and the morning had passed in a blur that had cost him two matches and earned him Liahan's tactful, if rather pointed, suggestion that, if the captain were feeling unwell, then Liahan would be happy to spell him in the salle for the day.
And since there was nothing so dangerous in the world as someone who only thought he knew where his blades were going, Andrahar had gritted his teeth, bowed to the wisdom of the politely-dressed rebuke, and retired to his home, there to vent his unsettled state of mind upon ghostly sparring partners.
But beneath all his exertions had pulsed that thin cord of desire, the one that had not let him say 'no' to Esteven, insinuating itself in all his parts and coiling about old memories, so that sometimes, the ghosts wore faces that had made him stumble, had made him hesitate. Still, he had kept at it – not for him to want and wish, but to obey. That had ever been the way of things – that was the order of things. Not for him, surely, to want more or otherwise, mirrors be damned.
But it was easier to kill his own shadow than that yearning toward 'yes,' and fear had crept from its darkness to lie like infection in his soul.
Love is rare that can freely give itself in all honor – so the Precepts teach, and all men know, and especially Andrahar. Child of too free a love, he has no illusions, and for such love as his in this land, little hope.
He had not been seeking anything so grand, therefore, the night he met Chakkhaurin of Pelargir, only respite from want of a certain love-like warmth. Nor would he have thought to find even that much in Khauri even so – caste complicated matters so among Haradrim, and especially for him.
For Andrahar cannot submit; there is always the boy with his fears and his hatreds, and who won't have his back touched – not by bed nor body. There is always the boy, who, older now, swifter, stronger, deadlier, can still deafen the man with his keening – or move him to violence.
Because he can't submit; he cannot submit, but Imrahil is not for him, and he'll take no one he does not trust to know and keep safely to his place. Haradrim know it. They are born and bred to know it as Gondorrim are not, but then he needs one who cares not about the scar that shows his slavery, nor about the streets of his past, nor his out-caste standing that cannot but betray itself in close quarters to eyes and ears accustomed to perceive such, even behind the shield of a prince's favor and a white belt. Among Haradrim, who but one paid or wanton untrustworthy would lie down with that?
But Khauri, with his Ta'alsheen tongue that tells of exiled centuries, kisses like benediction and forgives him his sacrilege.
"With you, I do not fear to yield," Khauri, breathless, tells him. Unlooked for faith, and yield he does, and gracefully, and God but it feels like a wound lanced and knit, like a world made whole in the sweet consummation of mortal fire!
It is one night, and Andrahar must sail in two days, but perhaps there is truly some touch of kindly Fire in what had kindled between them, and that brings a little respite from Fate's awful indifference. Eight months bring Khauri to foster with his uncle in Dol Amroth. Two more, and twelve precious nights later, bring Renewal and a question, couched in command:
"Come stand with me tomorrow night," Khauri, in the darkness, says to him, and Andrahar finds the words come but a little rustily after so long away from them:
"I will stand, and with you never fear to yield."
Three years they stand together – atsehn hremari! – however many leagues apart, ere the marriage bed and its bride arrive and drive the wedge in. For though Haradrim understand, have words and place for love's two-sided ways, Andrahar has learned too well to mistrust that men and women are made to bear them well. A heart shared is too often a house divided. He lets Chakkhaurin go.
Despite that, he's not ungrateful, though gratitude is bittersweet: three years more he honors love's short season on atsehn hremari. If that makes Renewal more a burial, well, Fate is at last as indifferent as it is strange. For 'tis likely true that what he and Khauri had could never have been in Harad, but only in Gondor, and so only for a little while. To ask for more risks ruin outright, and so he can afford to give it up with as much grace as it was given, surely.
But he feels it more this time, surrender. That little fearless, grateful space where to stand and vow was thanksgiving for no reason but that it lifted the heart, because to do and be so bound drew all together and rounded out the edges of life into a whole filled with Light – he had not known that before. He had not thought Gondor could give such gifts, though by itself it never could have, any more than Harad could have. Between two worlds, he and Khauri had made one for a little while.
Devotion slips less easily this time, therefore, and he remembers it more – for good or ill, as he charts his daily course in Gondor, he doesn't know.
He had returned to the fields about mid-afternoon.
"I need to think," he'd told Peloren, who had barred his way at first when he'd appeared at the tilting yard. Peloren's face had been a study in consternation (and worry, though Andrahar had done his best to overlook that), but in the end he had sighed and acquiesced.
"That I believe! Very well – if only because it will keep you off the sparring lists, have at it." Peloren had waved him on. But no sooner had he done so than the Horsemaster had laid a restraining hand upon his arm. "A moment, Andra," he'd forestalled him to say quietly: "I trust you'll not break anyone else's neck while you're about it, but do try not to break your own, hm?" Having made his plea, Peloren had left him to ride the course.
And so he had, for the next two hours, weaving his horse among the posts to collect rings while the sun had climbed down the sky and, kinetic soul that he was, thought had shaken itself out.
It had not, however, shaken itself free of the silence of that morning. That, he had had to own, and with it, the coil of desire that had bound his tongue before Esteven. Yet that counterdraw to his reluctance had not removed the latter, and that ambivalence had but left him the uneasier.
For as if it had not been enough to be divided against himself, there had still been the boy, who deserved some answer better than 'no' to his desire to accompany Andrahar. Curiosity was one thing and easily denied, but that had not been what Brand had shown him when pressed. The boy had made a claim on him, and he had – he had – to answer it. How, though?
Brand was as good a lad as any man could ask for. He was certainly all Andrahar could have desired, especially if he must miss Boromir – worth a vow and a profession, which, among Haradrim, were the natural issue of thanksgiving. His brother had not been wrong to think so. For all that the boy had given him, he ought to bring Brand along, since he'd wished it – indeed, Andrahar ought to stand at all because of him.
Yet if he stood because of the boy, then even silence would not save him from profession. It would be too late to stand silent only for Imrahil, for he would have assented to Brand's claim and bound himself without remission. And there lay the crux of the whole unhappy matter, as the afternoon's exertions had come to construe it.
For did not Brand deserve to know who Andrahar was, to claim him thus? Especially if Brand wished to stand with Andrahar tomorrow night – even if not in the way Haradrim meant it – should the boy not know to whom he bound himself, even if with affection only, and not vows? Did Andrahar dare say 'yes' to Brand, and stand as bound to him, when what he had been to Boromir, and his part in stripping Brand of the father who might, after all, have claimed him, remained unspoken?
It would be shameful, surely – and more perverse than anything Gondor had yet accused him of – to pretend to profess himself when he had not owned such truths to Brand, the more so if the boy were present at his side!
Had he put the matter thus to Imrahil, he had had no doubt what the Prince would have advised: Tell him, then, and trust the lad!
And had it been only a matter of trusting Brand, perhaps he might have risked it, for he had wanted what chance and Imrahil and one boy's artless answer had put before him – wanted it, as he had wanted few things. So much so that, his labors done, at the end of the tilting yard, Andrahar had sat his horse on the edge of revelations and wavered.
But Isfhandijar's shade had laid its hand upon him then, and touched his fear. The khan of Bakshir, who had loved Ariyë and quietly, blasphemously claimed her son, had loved too freely – and lost all. Desire reached farther than right, and delivered men to disaster. And he had been twelve years so free with Boromir...
And so whether from cowardice or prudence – they had seemed so much the same! – Andrahar had retreated from desire's urging. And with that retreat, everything in him, it had felt, had gone a peculiar sort of colorless slack. Had Esteven been there to ask him again the question of the morning, 'no' might have fallen out of him effortlessly. Likely, he ought not to stand at all with anyone.
Yet Imrahil had asked, and Andrahar had committed – however unwisely – to do it, and he would not break his word. Dutifully, therefore, after he had seen to his horse and to himself, he had gone to the Prince's suite to make final arrangements with Imrahil for Brand's keep the next day and night. But for the first time in many years, he had found himself resenting his duty to his oath-brother.
Who, when their business had finished, and Andrahar would have left, had laid his hands upon his shoulders and given him a long, odd look. Andrahar, for his part, had matched Imrahil stare for stare and silence for silence.
Perceiving no doubt that his trial of even their fraternity had passed its limit, even if not all the reasons and wherefores, his brother had let him go at length with nothing but well-wishes and good-night. Andrahar had made him a bow and departed. By the time he had reached his door, the sun had disappeared, leaving but a bright stain upon the horizon. Time had run out – Renewal had taken hold.
"Neham khenanai- khenaneraiya na zirhin," Brand had greeted him, marking the new 'day' with a slight stumble on the unfamiliar phrase.
"Thank you," Andrahar had replied.
"I ate already, so you wouldn't have to watch me," the boy had added, and Andrahar had not missed the still-hopeful look his ward had given him.
"You're a thoughtful lad," he'd told him, but no more. Brand had deflated a little, though he had seemed to accept his guardian's reticence and the rest of the evening had passed amicably enough.
But long after Brand had gone to bed, Andrahar had remained awake, thinking, staring into the hearth-fire 'til naught but glowing embers had remained. Only then had he risen and gone to such rest as might be had.
He dreams of Boromir. Not one of the prescient, living dreams that plague the House of Dol Amroth, but comfortless nonetheless.
In the dream, he is in the midst of a pathless forest, running, running, for he can hear the clangor of swords, and the trees resound with the fading echo of the Horn of Gondor.
If he can only find his way free of the forest, he will reach him, he can save him.
But the trees are endless, and their wood opens in fissures – the trunks darken, are running with blood, and he knows that it is too late. He has failed. He cannot even find the tree his lover fell beneath, but seeking it, he comes instead upon na žág-en-žagíd, immense and gnarled beyond the petty designs of men, that the Variags revere, and upon whose innumerable thorns, 'tis said, God-the-giver sets down every wrong that men have wrought in the world, that none shall be forgotten.
And one of them bears his name, damned with the titles of "assassin" and "blasphemer" and "faithless" traced out in the blood of each man that he has slain in a long career, and Boromir's but the latest, victim of all three crimes. The tree bleeds upon him, a thick, viscous sap that burns, marking him as surely as the slaver's needle had, and he cries out in pain –
– and he wakes then, breathless, to darkness.
But though he cannot see, he feels something move in the night – there is a shadow standing over him! Instinct honed sharp in battle and in the streets of Umbar is relentless. The knife is in his hand, and he acts before he can think – plants the blade deep, snarls when he feels the point grate on bone. But the other does not recoil, only seizes his wrist, and whispers:
"So cruel, beloved!"
"Boromir?!" The knife clatters to the floor –
– and he had wakened then, breathless, in a cold sweat. Blindly, he'd groped beneath his pillow, and when fingers brushed the hilt of that dagger, he'd collapsed back onto the bed, then rolled bonelessly onto his back. There he'd lain a long while, arms open to the blessedly empty darkness, just breathing.
So cruel, had mocked memory; So cruel, silence had whispered, and echoed in the aching hollow of his breast.
In time, restlessness had claimed him, and he had risen and gone to the window, throwing open the shutters. Outside, it had been dark still, but the moon had been riding low. The night had grown old. Renewal had crept onward while the world slept.
A sea-breeze had whispered across the window casement, chill where sweat had lain stale upon his skin. Andrahar had closed the shutters then, but he had not lit the hearth; instead, he had gone to the washstand. There, he'd lit a candle – only one – and wet the washcloth. Then stripping off nightshirt and underdrawers, he'd set them in the clothes-basket, and cleaned himself up.
But when he had done, and set the towel aside, he'd hesitated a moment, then poured a scant handful more of water into the basin. Right hand first, then left, he had dipped his fingers into that pitiful little puddle, pressed them to his eyes, to his lips, then drawn that little dampness across one palm and then the other, and then covered himself a moment, bowing his head.
Wealthy or poor, from the depths of the desert to the cities dotting the shores, so men made their morning ablutions in Harad, to go clean to their prayers and the day beyond. Haunted by dreams and the uneasy realizations of yesterday, Andrahar had doubted whether he'd come through ritual clean. But if ritual could not banish fear or uneasy shame, its orderly gestures, the familiar track they traced over his flesh, had helped settle sensibility – enough to turn his mind to practical matters, such as not standing naked in the dark and his doubt.
He'd dressed for the day, then, and as he had, he'd considered again what he would say to Boromir's son. It had still been dark, and he still uncertain, when, suitably attired, he'd lit a lantern and gone quietly down the hall to the main room of the house to lay the fire. And when he had done that, then he'd settled into a chair, sword across his knees, to wait for Brand or inspiration – whichever should come first.
As fate would have it, Brand had arrived first. The boy had come yawning in some hours later, as the sky had begun to lighten.
"Good morning," Andrahar had greeted him.
"Good morning, sir," Brand had replied, but frowned as he'd said it, eying the arming coat his guardian had been wearing. "I thought you had the day off."
"From my duties and the obligation to practice," he'd clarified.
"But you're going to practice anyway? Even though you can't eat anything today?"
"It will not be worse than a bad campaign, and only for a day." Brand had looked doubtful of this as only a perpetually ravenous thirteen year-old boy could.
"What will you do other than that 'til the evening?" Brand had asked then.
"Watch Liahan's performance. Discreetly, of course. Brand," he'd said, stilling the next question, "after we part this morning, I'll not see you again 'til tomorrow."
"Oh." From the sound of it, the boy had expected to see him at supper. But that was too near sunset and the start of the procession to chance it, since if Andrahar had to do a thing, he would see it done properly, within his limitations. And since the day had not been getting younger, he'd risen, then, and buckled Nightshade about his waist, then gone and laid a hand upon the lad's shoulder, guiding him toward the door.
"Come, I'll see you to the keep – you can join me for an hour before you're due at Imrahil's door."
Brand had nodded, and the two of them had departed into the brightening morn. Passing between the rows of sputtering street lamps, they had walked in a silence that had held all the way to the keep: they'd broken it only to greet the officers at table, who congregated at one end of the hall. They'd settled in, the boy accepting breakfast from a yawning page, while Andrahar had declined it, though he'd accepted a glass of water. Table talk had mostly been business this morning, and Brand had listened quietly. So, too, had Andrahar, refusing Liahan's one attempt to solicit an opinion from him. The younger man, sensing that he had been left well and truly on his own, had simply nodded, though he'd given his captain a quick, searching look, ere continuing the discussion with the others.
The shuffle of a mass of booted feet in the hallway sometime later, and the sleepy complaints of esquires had heralded the hour before the bell tower had, and Brand had glanced up at the light streaming now through the windows into the hall. He'd looked to Andrahar then, who had nodded.
"Excuse us, please, gentlemen," he'd murmured, and got a round of farewells as he and Brand had made for the exit and the upper halls. They had been nearing Imrahil's door when Andrahar had touched the boy's shoulder, drawing him to a halt.
"I'll leave you here," he'd told him.
"I thought you meant to see Grandy, too," Brand had said, puzzled.
"I meant to leave the hall," Andrahar had corrected, then before the boy could ask why, had said: "I know you're not best pleased with me of late, lad. I am sorry to vex. But I'll come for you tomorrow to break fast, though it will be early."
Since Andrahar usually was abroad before dawn, and Brand not long after it, which was respectably early by any measure, the boy had frowned. "How early?" Brand had asked.
"Earlier than you've yet seen with me – warn your uncle not to expect you tomorrow."
As a promise, it had been simple enough, though not the grant that the boy had sought. But Andrahar had remembered him at table that morning that sometimes, with children, it was not the particular thing they wanted anyway, but things were proxy for less tangible desireds.
With Esteven so much in mind, the gamble had presented itself, and it seemed that that inspiration had not erred: Brand had grinned suddenly, the disappointment of the past week dissipating in an instant. "Aye, sir!"
"Good lad. Go on, now." He'd waited until the lad was at the Prince's doorstep, then quietly departed, feeling he had dodged the worst stroke, at least. With Brand well disposed, he could in good faith stand for Imrahil, and let lie other reasons. And if he'd got no joy from the solution, at least he'd been assured that his disappointment could trouble no one but himself.
He is wrong in that, of course. His watchers from the wall have each their separate reasons to be there: Brand would always have gone to the wall to watch for him, if only from a distance, but though a promise soothes upset boyish sensibilities, it will not stop him wondering what it had been all about. He will not ask – it being a Private Matter – but he will wonder. And the Prince who joins him there has cause to doubt whether he has done well. Later, he knows, he will test that doubt. For now, however, he and the boy retire to the keep for the night, and leave the Haradrim to their long celebration.
The moon rises, drifts across the sky with its river of stars, and begins its downward journey. Down in the South Docks and out on the beaches, bonfires burn; music and chant break the stillness of the night, as the old stories are told again and vows renewed, just like they are in Bakshir, where it all began, and – there as here as everywhere among the Children of the Fire – begins anew again.
'Tis three hours past midnight, or nearly so, when a solitary robed figure makes its way through the guard stations and into the keep. It takes the stairs quickly and turns right down the hall to stop by the fifth door. A key is quietly inserted into the lock, and the light from the lantern the figure bears steals across the floor to where a bed sits against the wall. Atop it, fully dressed, lies Brand, who, after a moment, flinches sleepily from the light. Grey eyes blink open, then a broad grin splits his face, banishing weariness, as he swiftly rises.
The moon has lowered just a little more when man and boy arrive back down in South Docks, and come at length to a particular door. Like all the others this night, it stands open to all guests, and they pass within to loud and happy welcome from all the family gathered there – atsehn hremari! – as Esteven rises to greet the Captain and his lad. Space is made, dishes passed, and even Brand can manage to wish that everyone find joy in their vows.
"And will you?" Imrahil asked him later that day, when he had contrived to get Andrahar alone in the royal dayroom.
Standing shoulder to mantlepiece at the hearth, Andrahar fed cardamom shells – the remains of holiday fare – one after the other into the flames and shook his head tiredly.
"I made none," he told him, and could feel the Prince's gaze fix anxiously upon him.
"Was I wrong, then, Andra?" his brother asked. "Should I not have pressed?"
Andrahar said nothing for a time, considering how best to answer, feeling Imrahil's concern deepen over the delay. At length, he allowed, "You were not wrong."
And because it was Imri, the other sighed heavily, and finished for him: "But I should not have pressed." The Prince wandered into view then, and came to stand opposite him across the hearth, mirroring him as he leaned heavily against the mantle, grimacing.
"I knew," he murmured, "that it was risking presumption, but I thought... after that night before the Black Gate, I thought you might want – "
"It doesn't matter what I want." Imrahil blinked at his vehemence, quiet though it was, while Andrahar took a moment to collect himself and banish the memory of the Black Gate and its horrors and confessions from mind. "It matters," he said after a moment, and more calmly, "what I have done. How I stand, not whether I want to."
His brother did not reply, and for a time, the fire's crackle was the only sound. At length, however, Imrahil spoke once more: "I am sorry, Andra – truly. If there is anything – "
"Nay, there is not," Andrahar was quick to dismiss the matter, as he emptied his little handful of cardamom shells into the flames all at once and dusted his hands off. "It's done, Imri, and well enough. Let it be."
Imrahil had his doubts, clearly, but he did not insist upon them. "Get some sleep," he told him instead. To that, Andrahar could not but agree, and made for the door. He had not quite reached it, however, when Imrahil said suddenly:
"You did not go only because I asked you to do it." And when Andrahar did not immediately reply, he pressed: "Did you?"
"No," he admitted.
"Then will you go next year?"
Imrahil was watching him closely, but after a week of quiet struggles, Andrahar felt himself drawing the dregs at last, and he wanted at that moment nothing more than to lay him down and sleep. But if he had not been able to say 'yes' and stand, still he was bound to answer to someone.
"You are my Prince. I am bound to obey," he told him, and feeling Imrahil cringe, continued swiftly: "But you want for me more graces than I'm given, or can give." He paused briefly, then confessed: "I am grateful for that."
"You are my brother, Andra – what else should I do?" Imrahil asked him, sounding honestly perplexed by such thanks.
Andrahar considered this a moment. "You should," he said finally, "ask me again – next year." Then before Imrahil could speak: "Good day, Imri."
And with that, he departed.
1. This story occurs after The Lost and prior to Passages. The Black Gate reference comes from Last Rites, whose drama opens when Elphir and Imrahil accidentally discover that religious conviction has a role to play in Andrahar's grief over Boromir.
2. Na žág-en-žagíd: image inspired by Chuang Tzu's tree at the Hill of Shang and the story of the carpenter and his apprentice. See The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.
3. The idea for the rose symbolism came out of reading E. Levinas on a particular passage of the Talmud, though the meaning itself is different.
4. Thanks to Isabeau and Altariel for beta-reading and for letting me play in their sandbox again!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.