The next day Sohrabi went to attend on his father, as he did once each ten-days. An’Horubi, Farozi of Harad, smiled at the arrival of his younger proper son. “Welcome, Sohrabi. And how was your hunting with Lord Maruset yesterday?”
“It was fruitless. We found ducks, but he spoke out of turn and they were alarmed and flew away. It disgusted me, and I returned to my own house. Where is Ma’osiri?”
“Meeting with the envoy from Ephir, who has brought tribute in terms of a mamuk and a triple ten of spears and another of swords.”
“Does Virubat attend with him, then?”
An’Horubi shrugged and appeared aggrieved. “Virubat did not come to attend on me yesterday as he’d promised. Why not I do not know. He received a number of dispatches from the Eastern Lord yesterday--I must suppose he must deal with orders received from that one.” He straightened. “Let us go into the garden.”
As they walked past the lotus pond An’Horubi commented in such a low voice that even Sohrabi had difficulty hearing him, “I am as glad that Virubat has not attended on me. I find he grows increasingly proud and presumptive, and he offends me.” Not knowing if this was heartfelt, or perhaps a trap to get him to admit to an indiscretion, Sohrabi merely looked toward his father as if in question as to what had been said. An’Horubi gave his younger proper son a sideways look, then looked away. “You do well enough, Sohrabi,” he said, louder than before. “Did Maruset accompany you when you returned to your house?”
“No, my father. I left him there in the channels of the delta. I am not certain why he considers himself a hunter, for he speaks beforehand and alerts the prey, so losing it.”
“So I have found when I sought to hunt with him. His voice is often overloud, and his tread overheavy. Nor does he cast his hunting spear or throwing sticks well.”
Sohrabi gave an elaborate shrug. “I prefer to hunt alongside Ma’osiri.”
“Yes, your brother is an excellent hunter. Although Maruset is excellent with knife or sword. A fine fighter, he is.”
“As I am primarily an archer, my father, I fear I do not appreciate how good he might be.”
After a time of silence as they ambled through the flowering shrubs, An’Horubi commented, “Several of the great crocodiles were seen in the delta area yesterday afternoon, one a great beast indeed. Their presence was reported by the river wardens. One appears to have taken a boy, and there was sign that one may have taken another person as well. Certainly two cattle were lost near dusk.”
Sohrabi looked at his father with interest. “Would you have me seek such out, my father, to relieve the delta of the danger they pose?”
“Yes, my son. If you will look into it tomorrow.”
“Would you have me kill them, or capture them and transport them elsewhere?”
“Capture them if you can do so without losing Men. If you cannot, then kill them.” He paused to caress a blossom of jasmine. “There has been word from the herding families on the edge of the desert--a stranger, apparently from the North, has been among them. Several days ago he was among the Bahtsi clan and assisted in the care of one of the sons of their tents, one who had caught the sand sickness.”
“The sand sickness? That is bad.”
“Yes. The boy was far taken with it, yet this stranger was able to soothe him, and the boy both survived and now appears to thrive. He spoke of being a trader, returning before his caravan so as to meet his trader’s ship early.”
“I see,” Sohrabi said.
“If you find any word of this one, let me know. I would show him honor.”
“Even if he were to be found to have come from the people of Gondor?”
“One skilled in healing is ever to be respected, no matter what land saw his birth, my son. Although if he is from the people of Gondor I suspect Maruset and Virubat will demand him. Too bad, really.” He looked to the East. “I grow tired, I find, of Maruset and his altars, and Virubat and his constant talk of war and the Eastern Lord.” He finally led off again. “I had thought of looking for another maiden to rejoice in, but find less joy in the thought of it than I’ve known before. Perhaps it is because Virubat has not been there last night and today to encourage me in it.” Finally, as they walked again about the lotus pool and he looked down at the fish which darted through the water below him, he paused and murmured, “I find my health is beginning to wane, my son.”
Alarmed, Sohrabi looked into his father’s face. His father’s eyes were steady enough. “In what way, my father?”
His father shrugged. Finally he said quietly, “There is a lump in my side. I had the priest of Baht to look at it, and he fears it is a growth of the crab sickness. If it is the crab growth as he fears, I will most likely not live more than a year or so longer. Such a growth, after all, took my mother.” Noting Sohrabi’s expression of concern, he smiled. “Do not worry for me, my son. I am growing old and must soon go to my rest. My tomb is already completed, and all is in readiness.” Suddenly he looked into his son’s eyes with an intent expression. “Not that Marusat and Virubat wouldn’t prefer it if I were to end my days weeping and crying out for mercy on one of the altars of the Death Eater.” Both of them shuddered. “That is what they would prefer, after all--that all in this land end so. I grow tired of the Eastern Lord and his ways and his constant demands for the deaths of our folk, either on his altars to his glory alone or fighting in his wars.”
Sohrabi said quietly from between clenched teeth, “Then why don’t you throw them from our land?”
“We have no strength of arms to do so.”
“Do we have so much less than Gondor? Mordor holds no sway in Gondor.”
“But Mordor has held sway here for many, many lifetimes. Were we to attempt to cast them out, they would come upon us in force and destroy our land and our people. The Eastern Lord knows our strengths and weaknesses, and knows how to take advantage of latter and how to overcome the former. Too much experience with us do he and his commanders have.” The Farozi of Harad looked out at the sky over the walls of the compound. Very quietly he said, “Believe me, Sohrabi, if I could cast them out, I would.”
Sohrabi was shocked, for never had his father said anything of the kind. Had his father in some way perceived the death of Maruset and the destruction of his ring, or the capture of Virubat? But how could that have been?
An’Horubi sighed. “Once I am gone, your brother will need you to stand beside him. Those sent by the Eastern Lord would see him and you slain if they could. He will be a worthy enough one, I suppose. But if you are by him he will be stronger, for your discernment will serve him well.”
After he returned to his own house he asked after their guest. Amonrabi looked down the hallway to the guest wing. “He is within his chamber. He has made certain that the prisoner was given food and water and allowed to cleanse himself, but has not questioned him as yet. Says he will not do so until you and I are ready to stand by him and hear what that one says.”
“What does Ma’annubi have to say regarding him?”
“That he is muscular and is scarred as one who is a swordsman would be expected to be scarred. That he has a scar on his abdomen that is not old. That his voice when singing is particularly pleasing. That he carries a scroll of the poetry of Khafirosiri and a picture of the face of a woman who may be his mother.”
Sohrabi was impressed that Horubi’ninarin would have the scroll of poetry. “I will go to his room then.”
The door was open, and he could see that his guest sat at the writing table within the room and had in his hand a scroll which he was clearly studying. Sohrabi clapped his hands to announce his presence outside the door, and the Northerner rose, calling “Enter” as he bowed low.
Sohrabi noted sitting on the table were a flagon of the sort used for water and a second of date wine, a goblet, a dish of figs and dates, and part of one of the flat rounds of bread commonly served with meals. “You have what you need for the sake of comfort, then, my friend?”
“Yes, Lord. Your people have been fully hospitable to me.”
He was dressed, the Farozi’s son noted, in the garb he’d worn the previous evening, in the exquisitely finished shirt and trousers of raw silk, his feet bare. “I have not seen such workmanship before,” Sohrabi commented.
“A few years ago I bought bolts of the cloth from traders from Harad, and took it to the home where I lived as a child. The ladies who served there wrought it into these garments. They seem well suited to your lands.”
“We trade for the cloth with those who live far to the east of here, along the shores of the Eastern Sea.”
“Then there is indeed an Eastern Sea?”
“Oh, yes. Many of our traders go there regularly by ship or by land caravan. What is it you read?”
“The works, I am told, of Khafirosiri. His skill at weaving words is pleasing.” He rolled to a particular place. “Here especially he has caught the beauty of a woman at the dying of the day....” He began to read, and his voice as he read was clear and pleasing, reflecting the beauty of the words he spoke.
“Beautiful you are, my love, as the light of Ra as he sets in glory
is caught in the strands of your dark hair.
Beautiful you are, my love, as the breath of desire
lifts your sweet breasts.
Beautiful you are, my love, as the light of stars
is reflected in your clear eyes.”
“I am surprised that you can read our writing,” Sohrabi commented.
His guest looked up at him, surprised. “I read several languages. Haradri is more difficult than many others, for it is based on pictures rather than alphabets as are most other languages I know. However, I have found it worthwhile to learn it. Your literature is very beautiful.”
“Do you yourself have a woman you love?”
Horubi’ninarin sighed, “Yes, there is a woman I love. However, at this time there is nothing I can do about it. But this poem might have been written of her beauty.” He gently rolled the scroll, tied the ribbon around it, and set it on the table. “How did your morning’s visit go?”
Sohrabi himself sighed. “My father is ill, it appears. He has found a lump under the skin on his side. Such illness killed his own mother. The priest of Baht has apparently told him it is the crab growth.” He examined the Northerner more closely. “My father wishes to do you honor, by the way. Word that you have helped heal a child has come to him.”
“Your father would honor a Northerner?”
“He says that one who is a good healer of any land deserves honor.” After a moment’s thought he asked, “Do you know ought of the crab sickness?”
“You would have me examine your father?”
Sohrabi shrugged. “He is my father, and I would not lose him before his time.”
“I have been taught to deal with many of the illnesses common to my own people, and to deal with the injuries suffered by warriors. I have delivered infants, and assisted in the removal of growths. I have not removed any on my own, however.”
“Growths can be removed?”
“Yes, but if it is not done properly or if any is left behind the growth is likely to return.”
“Would you go with me to see him this evening?”
After a time of thought, the Northerner said, “If you ask it of me, my Lord.” He straightened. “Will you and your steward stand by me as I question Virubat?”
“Certainly,” Sohrabi said. “What will you do with him afterward?”
“Oh, do not worry. He will not remain here in Harad.” Horubi’ninarin’s face had grown stern. “I will not have such as he in any land if I can manage it.”
Two hours later they saw Virubat replaced in his room. Sohrabi had been impressed by the questions asked by his guest, and at how in the end Virubat ended in answering him even when it was obvious it was the last thing he wished to do. There was a quality of command in the Man’s voice that even Virubat couldn’t ignore. The plot to have Maruset murder Sohrabi was confirmed, along with the tactics to be used in threatening and coercing Ma’osiri to do their will. That the Farozi was deliberately encouraged to take as many women as they could urge on him and that the resultant children were targeted whenever possible to go to the altars of the Eastern Lord was also made plain, and Sohrabi found himself becoming increasingly full of fury. He watched the replacement of the Umbari in the storeroom with a degree of relief.
Horubi’ninarin’s face was set. His anger was there, Sohrabi realized, but was well under control. Finally he said, “To see such a deliberate program of corruption is--disturbing. When my ship returns, I will consult with my cousin as to what should be done with him. But I will not see such as this left to continue to cause such destruction here. Nor will I leave him to tell of such as I having taken and questioned him.”
Amonrabi nodded. “It is rare that the world is the better for some to have left it, but in this case....” He left the sentence unfinished.
The meal was eaten in relative silence, and after the Northerner went back to his room and brought out with him the large scarlet pouch tied with the elaborate knot, once again the robes of a bodyguard were given him to disguise his nature, and they left for the Farozi’s palace.
An’Horubi was surprised when his body servant came to say that his son had come a second time that day, but bade Sohrabi be admitted. He was a bit surprised when he saw the bodyguard with him, but kept his silence until they were alone.
“Twice in one day, my son?”
“There was a thing which you asked of me earlier today, my father, that I find myself able to grant.” On making certain that they were alone, he signed to his companion to remove his headcloth. “You said that you wished to show honor to the Northern stranger who assisted the child of the Bahtsis. Well, this is the Man. As he is indeed a Northerner, he wishes not to reveal himself to the Death Eater’s folk. His people, after all, are seen by the Eastern Lord as his greatest enemies.”
An’Horubi examined the stranger with great interest. “You are a healer?”
“I have been trained to the healing arts since childhood, my Lord.”
“You have experience with the crab sickness?”
“Who trained you in the healing arts?”
“He who was as father to me.”
“Is he any good?”
“Are you any good?”
“Shall we find out, my Lord?”
“What would you have me do?”
“Are you willing to remove your robe and let me touch the affected area, my Lord?”
Sohrabi helped his father to remove his robe. The stranger examined the flesh over the lump first, then gently reached out his hand to touch the skin. In time he began to sing, and his eyes grew more distant as the song continued, as if he were paying more attention to what he felt than to what he looked on. When the song was done, he remained in the same posture for some moments, then finally took a deep breath and became alert again.
“I do not believe that this growth is breached as yet--if we can remove it now, then it is likely you will know several more years of life. If it is not, it is likely to breach and you will most likely be dead in a year’s time.”
“I do not understand what you mean by ‘breached’,” the Farozi said, examining the face of the healer.
“That which causes the growth to grow is still contained within the membrane that covers it. If that membrane is breached, then it will spread, and quickly. If it is removed now, then it is most likely the membrane will not be breached. However, we will need much care, for such things seek to draw the blood to themselves, and so there will be many blood vessels which will need to be cauterized or their beginnings and endings changed that you not bleed to death. It is not a simple thing to do.”
“You have done this before?”
“I have assisted the father of my heart to remove such. I have not done so by myself. I have done the cauterizing of larger vessels, and I have sewn a few vessels together in different routes, but not without his supervision.”
An’Horubi thought deeply. “Will you remove it for me?”
“And if I make an error and you die under the knife, what will become of me? I am responsible to others and do not have the freedom to spend my life for the chance you might live but that you might also die, and then I would die as a result.”
“And if I give you my pardon ahead of time?”
“What good will there be in such a pardon? It is your heir who must uphold it or deny it.”
An’Horubi and Sohrabi looked to one another. The Northerner continued, “There is also the matter of the Necromancer’s spies here within your house. If word is passed through them to any other agent of the removal of the growth by a Northern stranger, it would go ill for both of us. Sauron would have you killed before you recovered from the removal, and my ship would most likely be assaulted by the pirates of Umbar before it could carry me from this land to the mouth of the great River.”
“Yet here we lie upon the great River.”
The stranger looked on them steadily. “Each land, I find, has its own great River.”
“I see,” An’Horubi said drily. “I would wish to know for certain which in my household are the spies of the Eastern Lord.”
Sohrabi said, rather tentatively, “We have learned the names of some of them, and some who serve in the house of Ma’osiri as well. The two named in my house we were already aware of, and have been rendered useless at the moment.”
“How did you learn this?”
“What you do not know, my father, cannot be prised from you to be used against you.”
“That is true enough, I suppose. Who within this house besides E’remseti serves as spies for the Eastern Lord?”
E’remseti had indeed been identified as one of Virubat’s spies, and the names of two of the three remaining didn’t appear to surprise the Farozi, although the fourth did. “Pe’elisiri is an agent, also? She was a gift from Ba’alamon. What this says of Ba’alamon I cannot say. I’d always thought of her as his own eyes within my house, so was circumspect as to what I do and say around her that what I do not wish him to know would not get back to him. She has only just returned an hour since from the Valley of the Sun.”
Sohrabi was alarmed. “She goes to that place?”
“She has gone there often, my son.”
“Then the Death Eater may have other agents there in the sacred precincts as well.”
“That has always been true, Sohrabi. He has woven himself deeply into our ways, after all.”
Sohrabi again felt anger rising in his heart. “I would see them all cast out,” he said with a low growl.
“That may not be now.”
“You must find a way to use the spies amongst you to your advantage,” Horubi’ninarin indicated.
The discussion went on for a time, and it was decided that in three days they would all meet in the Valley of the Sun with Ma’osiri in attendance that Horubi’ninarin could remove the growth. “In the meantime,” the trader continued, “I would have you breathe the vapors of the leaves of a healing herb which my people steep in boiling water. It will served to ease you. May we have boiling water brought?”
“Yes, but you must veil yourself again, for it would be Pe’elisiri who would bring the water.” The Farozi accepted his son’s assistance in replacing his robe.
The tall Northerner nodded his understanding, and drawing the robes and veiling headcloth of a bodyguard around him slipped back to the proper place for such, standing in such a manner the eye seemed to slide over him and take no other notice. An’Horubi summoned his body servant and sent for his maid, and gave her the needful order. Within a quarter mark the water had been brought, the maid had been dismissed, and at last the trader, swordsman, and healer untied the elaborate knot and brought out a packet of leaves, drew out two and bruised them, breathing on them, then dropped them into the water. He inclined his own face over the steam, then smiled as he straightened.
Reassured, the Farozi followed suit, and after a moment breathed deeply. When at last he straightened his face seemed less lined. He looked with interest at his son’s guest. “This is a healing herb indeed,” he commented. “I feel much assured. If you will send the word to your brother to meet us at the proper time, Sohrabi?”
“Gladly, my Lord Father,” the younger lord assured him. “And tomorrow I will see to the crocodiles.”
At his father’s nod Sohrabi and his companion left.