Three more days they stayed in the valley. Each day the tall Northerner would check the healing wound, and on the fourth day after the cutting pulled out the wick of cloth as he said the look of the drainage indicated it was no longer needed. On the last morning he brought small scissors and fine tongs and removed the outer stitches. Each day he laid his hands over the wound and sang over it, then went quiet for a time. On the last day as he finally straightened he smiled. “It is very well, my Lord, and you will bear only the faintest of scars for eyes to see only with difficulty.” The Farozi smiled with satisfaction.
The last evening that they remained in the valley Pe’elisiri came to her master. “Lord,” she said quietly, “I would wish a great boon from you.”
“What is it?” the Farozi asked.
She stood still, her eyes fixed on his sandals as was expected of one of her station, but finally she raised them to his face. “I was set in your household to be a spy, Lord. I do not like being a spy. As a girl I had wished to serve in the temple of Isiri, but my father, seeing my beauty, thought to advance himself by giving me to become a bondservant. Virubat accepted me, and after using me brutally for a time, lost his taste for me and at last gave me to Ba’alamon to spy in his house. When Ba’alamon realized my function there, he approached Virubat, who directed I be placed in your household to continue to spy for him. I have passed little enough information to him--nothing that was not openly known. As you thought I was set to spy for Ba’alamon you were being circumspect already.”
The Farozi nodded his understanding.
She drew a deep breath. “Word came to you before we left Thetos that Virubat was missing, and Maruset is also no more, my Lord, apparently taken by Seti’s beasts.” At her master’s further nod, she continued, “That being so, I now have no one to report to any more, and am relieved. Should another be sent by the Eastern Lord, however, once it is learned what my purpose was within your house, I suspect I would again be forced to spy upon you. I do not wish to do this. There are also those within your house in Thetos who would do with me as Virubat did, and I would not undergo such again. Part of the reason I have come here so often is to seek cleansing from the taint I have known from being used so.”
“What is it, then, you would ask of me?”
“To be given to the temple of Isiri here, where none can easily convince the priests to send me out again as bondservant or slave, Lord.”
“I will think on it, Pe’elisiri,” the Farozi said thoughtfully. “Return now to your quarters.”
After she was gone he sent for the high priest and told him of the request the girl had made of him.
“We would accept her, for what was done to her was not of her will and her love for Isiri and Osiri is very obvious to all. But, to ascertain she is indeed desirous to leave forever the service of those who bow to the Eastern Lord, I would question her before you and the one called Horubi’ninarin.”
“He is one, we have seen, to whom it is almost impossible to lie, Lord. If she seeks to come here as an agent for the Eastern Lord, he will, I think, be able to detect it and so advise me. I will not willingly let Seti’s folk enter this valley.”
So it was that an hour later Pe’elisiri was brought to be questioned before her master, the high priest, and the Northerner. Finally the wanderer indicated to his hosts his belief that she would be true, and it was done. She entered the service of the temple of Isiri as one of those who remained outside the eyes of men, and she and her former master were both pleased with the arrangements.
Bherevrid had been surprised that he and his son were asked by Ma’osiri to come with him to the Valley of the Sun, particularly as many of the usages and beliefs of the home for Bherevrid and his wife were very different from those who lived along the River Risen. Once he realized, however, that the reason was to keep them safe from the agents of the Dark Lord, Bherevrid was reassured, particularly for his son.
Bherevrid was a born soldier and tactician. Due to the fearlessness shown typically by the warriors of the region where Bherevrid was born, many of the most elite guards and soldiers recruited for the Farozi’s own troops were drawn from among their number. Bherevrid had come to Thetos when still young, and had, due to his intelligence and skill with weapons, risen swiftly through the private forces of the Farozi. However, once he was approached by one of Maruset’s agents about perhaps leading a palace revolt against the Farozi, he’d swiftly proven faithful to the hereditary lord of his people. Maruset had been forced to foreswear his own agent, indicating he’d had no knowledge of the Man’s actions, and had seen to his swift execution. However, from that day Bherevrid and he had found themselves mutually distrusting one another.
In an uprising in another section of Far Harad, Bherevrid had gone with Ma’osiri and had assisted in putting down the revolt, managing to save the Farozi’s heir and earning his thanks. Soon Ma’osiri was noting a series of rumors being put out to destroy the reputation of his savior, rumors he was able to track back to Maruset’s people, and he was able to counter them and discredit those charged in spreading them. Warned of the enmity of Maruset, Bherevrid had managed to foil three assassination attempts on himself and one on Ma’osiri. The two Men became increasingly dependent on and responsible toward one another, and Bherevrid had become head of Ma’osiri’s own bodyguard.
As the two of them had become increasingly aware of how the attacks on themselves were originating from the top agents of the Eastern Lord, they’d begun to distance themselves from Mordor’s people and policies. As he was given more responsibilities by his father to see to the forces of Harad, Ma’osiri had increasingly worked keep his best troops from direct service to the Death Eater. He and Bherevrid had begun sorting through the armies of Harad, and effectively created two forces, one of the brutal and thoughtless elements which they made available to the Dark Lord’s service, and one of the more capable and responsible soldiers, who provided the bulk of internal security. So skillfully had Bherevrid formed the two forces that Virubat and Maruset had only recently realized that the best troops in Harad were not being made available to the service of Mordor. However, before they could decide on how to make this information available to Sauron, Maruset was dead and Virubat captured; and now no one of authority to pass on the intelligence was aware that this was true.
Bherevrid’s father had arranged a marriage between his son and the daughter of the headman for another village, and it had been fairly successful. However, his wife had developed a fever after the birth of their son and had died, and so Bherevrid had used wet nurses to see his son through infancy and had, after that, kept the boy close by him. Now six years of age, Rustovrid was already learning to handle sword, shield, and spear.
The boy was fascinated by the Northerner, by his pale skin, his grey eyes, his singing voice, and, one morning when he went out before his father had risen, with the skill with which he saw the Man wielding his sword as he went through a series of forms with it in the courtyard set aside for such practice.
When Horubi’ninarin sheathed his sword, he noted his audience and gave the child a bow before he went to the fountain to lave water over his neck. “You are very good with your sword,” the boy said.
“Yes, I am.”
“How old were you when you began to learn how to use a sword?”
“Perhaps the same age as you now. I think I was about five summers when I received my first practice sword.”
“I am six years. I have my own practice sword and shield, too. Who taught you?”
“My foster brothers, my foster father, and those who guarded the surrounding lands at first. Who teaches you?”
“My father and his lieutenants. Can you use a spear?”
“I know how to do so, but am best with a blade. Can you handle a bow?”
“I never tried. Can you?”
“Can you fight with a knife?”
“Have you killed many enemies?”
The tall Man looked down on the little boy, and sighed. Finally he answered, “Yes, I have had to kill enemies at times.”
“Are you really a healer as well as a warrior?”
“Which do you like better?”
The Man’s voice was very certain. “I prefer healing to fighting.”
“Do you have your own horse?”
“I have one here and two more at home.”
“Where are they?”
“My cousin’s family takes care of them.”
“Do you like riding?”
“Yes. Do you?”
“I’ve only ridden a pony a few times. Sometimes I ride before my father, but he does not care to ride a horse. When did you begin to ride?”
“I cannot remember not riding. I would ride my pony alongside my mother and my foster father and brothers when I was still yet a small child.”
“Your mother rode?”
The boy was deeply impressed. “Women here do not ride.”
“That is too bad. My mother rode a mare named Alladia and a gelding named Bestor.”
“What was your pony’s name?”
“Gerontius? What kind of name was that?”
“A friend of my father named it, and this was the name of one he’d admired exceedingly.”
“I will have a camel when I grow up.”
“Have you ever ridden a camel?”
“Yes, I have, but I am not as skilled in doing so as I am with a horse or a pony.”
“What is it like where you live?”
The Man sat on a bench and drew a towel over his shoulders, and indicated the boy should sit by him. “What is it like? Oh, very different from here. It is far to the North, so we are much cooler even in the summer; and in the winter it can be very cold indeed. There are many trees, and many hills and valleys. The sky is a softer blue than here, and the land is green and the soil rich.”
“Do people look as you do?”
“Most have paler skin as I do; but the color of hair can vary greatly from pale gold to black; and eyes can be almost any color--black, grey, blue, green, hazel, different shades of brown....”
“I don’t believe eyes can be blue.”
“I am sorry you don’t believe it, but it is true whether you believe it or not. Have you ever seen eyes grey as mine are?”
After thinking a moment the boy conceded, “No.” Then he asked, “Can you read and write?”
“Yes, many languages.”
“Why do you know many languages?”
“There are many languages spoken by the various peoples of the North, and my foster father wished me to know as many as possible. He felt being able to speak languages was an advantage, and would stand me in good stead as a healer.”
“Who taught you to sing?”
The Man laughed. “I can’t remember not knowing how. I’ve learned many songs of many peoples, but to sing--that is simply part of me.”
“Will you sing to me?”
After looking at the boy for a few minutes, Horubi’ninarin began to sing a song whose words Rustovrid did not understand but whose tune was rollicking. When at last the song was over, the boy asked, “What was it about?”
The Man smiled. “It is the song about a frog who loved a mouse and sought to take her to wife.”
“A frog can’t take a mouse to wife!”
“I know, but this foolish frog didn’t know it. The frog is describing the loveliness of his home in the pond, and the mouse is telling of the comfort of her home in the walls of the house, and neither thinks the other’s home would be pleasant at all.”
Rustovrid laughed, and at that moment his father came out. “And what do you here, my son,” Bherevrid asked.
“I was watching the Northerner practice with his sword, Baba.”
The general among the Haradrim gave the stranger an evaluative stare. “Would you like to spar, merchant?”
“If you wish.”
The stranger set down his towel, then stood opposite the Haradri. They bowed, took their stances, and began. Bherevrid quickly realized that his opponent was an excellent swordsman, and quickened the pace. Always the parry was there, the countermove made expertly. Bherevrid broke off, and they began to circle one another. Again the Northerner let Bherevrid lead off, responded swiftly and effectively. Then they were circling again. The Haradri changed his tactics, and the stranger shifted as readily. Then, suddenly, Bherevrid was disarmed, his wrist stinging as he watched his sword skittering across the ground. Seeing the Haradri step back, holding his wrist, the grey-eyed Man leaned down and scooped up Bherevrid’s sword, then presented it, hilt first.
“Do you wish another round?” asked Horubi’ninarin.
“No, I think I have done enough. You are very good. Who taught you?”
“It started with my foster brothers; but I’ve studied under many over the years.”
“Do you fight with knives as well?”
Sohrabi had come out in time to see the last few moments of the sparring, and he answered for his guest: “Yes, he does, and he is very good at it.”
“You’ve matched one another?” Sohrabi gave an elaborate shrug, and Bherevrid laughed. “You are not that great a one for fighting with a blade, actually, my prince.”
“No, I am not. However, I can appreciate this one’s skill.”
Again Bherevrid considered the Northerner. “You said you have served as a hired sword?”
“Yes, I have.”
“If you would wish to do so again----”
But the Man was shaking his head. “No, my kinsmen have given me this last liberty, with the understanding that when I returned it would be to serve the needs of our own.”
“You need not return.”
“I must return. I may no longer indulge only my own curiosity and desires.”
Bherevrid sighed. “Well, if ever you tire of serving the needs of your people, you will be welcome to serve under me.”
The taller Man shook his head. “Not as long as your people lie under the rule of Mordor.”
“My own troops are restricted to the needs of Harad, not to serve the whims of the Death Eater.”
“That may be, but the agents of Sauron still have influence; and although the two greatest of this time may be missing or dead, others will replace them, and undoubtedly the Nazgul themselves will come here in time. You could not hide the fact that you have one from the Northlands where his greatest enemies live fighting for you, and eventually they would seek to kill me, and you for recruiting me, or your son to punish you for doing so.”
Bherevrid could not deny such logic. “I can still wish it, however.”
The other nodded. “Then let us hope for a time when North and South no longer are in enmity with one another.”
Ma’osiri went to the stables early on the day on which they were to leave to find Horubi’ninarin already there, grooming his horse and crooning to it in a language he did not recognize. Examining the animal, the Haradri realized it was of excellent breeding. “Did you bring this with you from your own lands?”
The Northerner looked over his shoulder and smiled ruefully. “No, our ship had no facilities for the carrying of animals. I purchased it here after my arrival.”
“A fine steed.”
The response was a nod of agreement.
“Will you take it with you?”
“Again, our ship has no facilities for such, for this or the camel.”
“Where is the camel?”
“In your brother’s stable.”
“What will you do with it?”
“I suppose I must sell them ere I leave your land. Although I have a mind to gift the camel to Khafiramun, whom I believe will rejoice to receive such a fine addition to his string.”
“A worthy thought.”
Horubi’ninarin’s mouth twitched. “I would like to send the camel to my last lord’s son, simply to confound him. However, it would not be particularly happy there, for he would not know how to appreciate nor care for such an animal.” He sighed. “No, it would be far happier, I think, in the hands of Khafiramun.”
The horse, bored with the talk, thrust its nose hard against its master’s chest, demanding more attention. “Now wait, my brother. Always you wish for all to look on you and praise your beauty, do you not?” the Man said indulgently.
Ma’osiri laughed, and came closer to examine the animal more closely. “He has the look to him of Perdui breeding.” He reached out and stroked its nose. “He is definitely good spirited.”
“When I purchased him, my advisor was not happy with my choice. But he was a fine beast in the possession of one whose hands were too heavy for such a one, and needed care and love to bring him to his full promise.” He produced a date from their breakfast and offered it to the horse, who accepted it gently. “Again I would love to gift this to the son of a former lord, who would look on him with pleasure and add its bloodlines happily to the lines of his herd. Although one of my kinsmen would also be pleased to have him. He and his family have bred and trained horses for many generations.”
“How much would you accept for him?”
The Northerner looked with surprise at the Haradri. “You would wish to have him, Lord?”
“To have such a fine stallion of Perdui breeding--he would be a good addition to my own stables.”
Examining Ma’osiri’s face clearly, Horubi’ninarin finally said, “I would gladly gift him to you. It would be pleasure enough to see him in the hands of one who would care for him as he deserves.”
“No, such a valuable animal I could not accept as a gift.”
“Then, my Lord, I paid eighteen sisterces for him.”
“He is worth more than that now. I offer you twenty-two.”
“You have an odd manner of bargaining, Lord, offering more than is asked.”
Ma’osiri smiled. “You have asked no return for the healing of my father, and I would not be surprised to learn that it is in part due to your efforts that both Maruset and Virubat are not at liberty at this time to lord it over our folk.”
There was no response in the face of the Northerner. Ma’osiri shook his head. “Neither yea nor nay?”
Horubi’ninarin smiled, but still did not answer. Finally he responded, “I will accept twenty sisterces.”
Ma’osiri shrugged expressively and smiled in return.
Sohrabi watched as Horubi’ninarin, now dressed again as a bodyguard, carefully gathered up his white bag, the larger red one they now knew held his healer’s kit, and at last his saddlebags, preparatory to leaving. The tall Man carefully scanned the room, making certain he’d left nothing. His sword was suspended from the belt he wore under his robes, along with that deadly dagger of his; his green pouch he wore there also.
“You appear to be ready now,” Sohrabi commented.
“And you, my Lord?”
“Ma’annubi has all in readiness.”
“I am somewhat surprised he has not gone through my quarters here.”
“Are you so certain he has not?”
The Northerner laughed. “If he can have done so, then I am certain my cousin will wish to recruit him.”
Very quietly, Sohrabi asked, “What will you do with Virubat?”
“With your permission I will leave him in your wine closet for two more days. Tomorrow I will seek a means to carry him unseen to the harbor at Risenmouthe. My cousin will wish to ask his own questions. If I learn any more of import for your land, family or those close to you, I will see to it you receive word of it. Mostly, of course, we will be concerned about the Enemy’s plans for the Northern Lands, and I will see what information these might have regarding such.”
“My father does very well.”
“He draws further from the policies of Mordor.”
“Then I will pray he continues to do so, my Lord. Now, however, I must return to your house, recover my trader’s robes, and go to the caravansary in Risenmouthe to learn whether word has come from Khafiramun, then to Risenmouthe harbor to await my ship. I must return now to my own people and lands with the goods I have traded for here.”
“Yes, you do have a life separate from ours.”
“That I do.”
“I will pray you and I do not face one another on the field of battle one day.”
“It would distress me to do so, but I will do what I must for the needs of those I serve.”
“You could enter our service--you said you have been a hired sword before....”
But the shake of the head said it all.
A half hour later they were out in the stable yard. A groom brought out the Northerner’s steed already saddled and bridled. All watched amused as the tall Man examined all, recinched the girth, reseated the bridle, checked the comfort of the animal before he finally swung himself up into the saddle. The Farozi’s party set out first, followed by that of Ma’osiri, and finally that of Sohrabi. Sohrabi was pleased to see that now that they were leaving the Valley of the Sun again Horubi’ninarin fell into the role of bodyguard most effectively.