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18
To the Service of the King

To the Service of the Queen

Benai followed after the tall woman with the pale face and her small daughter at her side and infant in the sling at her breast with all the dignity he had. He realized she had just saved him from the agents of great families who stood in the crowd, eager to purchase such as he to serve as a bodyguard or heavy laborer. He had been the chieftain of his village and one of the great ones of his people; but their enemies had planned their raid well, falling on them on a night of celebration when even the village guards were distracted. His own bride had died in the raid, his people caught up and taken this way and that. He’d failed his people--failed even she who was to have been his wife. Now only he was left that he knew of, and he’d thought to be sold into full degradation until the woman with the eyes filled with stars saw him and chose him out to save.

He sensed she was gentle and desired no ill for him or the girl she’d bought alongside him, saw that she desired to give the girl back her freedom and a place in the world once more. This girl was not born to slavery; he sensed she was the daughter of a free Man, one who’d fallen by mischance into the hands of the slavers. She did not deserve to be a slave, and would have survived only a short time. She would have had no idea as to what was expected of her; she’d have been beaten repeatedly, would have been ridiculed by the least of those in her new household. She would soon have sickened and given herself to death, not certain when her release came what it meant even as she embraced it.

That was no longer to be her fate, though, now that the woman of stars had seen her and singled her out. As the woman of stars recognized the significance of certain items in the market stall and purchased them for the girl, Benai felt even more relieved. He’d thought once that if the chance fell him, once he was freed of chains he would flee to freedom. But now he realized that he would follow one such as this woman anywhere. When she had finished her purchases and they resumed their way back to whatever was her place while she sojourned in this land, Benai followed steadily.

The guards at the gate admitted them, and they walked in silence through the grounds and into the palace, and the woman of stars led her folk into the guest wing given to their use. Benai continued to follow her until they reached a large room intended obviously for a number to meet within, stood before her as she stood examining both himself and the girl, as a Man even taller than Benai himself approached her to stand by her side.

*******

The King had been attending an audience given by the Farozi when Legolas straightened as if listening, then nodded slightly and returned to his respectful attention to the case the Farozi was considering. Two landholders from some fifteen miles south of Thetos were quarreling about the boundaries between their adjoining properties. It was obvious the markers had been moved, and probably multiple times, most likely by agents from both sides. The arguments and testimony by various witnesses for both parties were lengthy and beginning to grow tedious. Aragorn had decided after the first half hour how he would decide the case, but as he didn’t have authority here (for which at the moment he was grateful), he waited to see how An’Sohrabi would decide the quarrel.

After three hours of arguing and listening even the two litigants were beginning to tire; and although he himself wouldn’t have let things drag on so, Aragorn recognized that An’Sohrabi was allowing this deliberately, realizing that when all were totally bored with repeating arguments they would be more open to what the Farozi might decide. He realized that An’Sohrabi was quietly enjoying the show, that he’d also already decided what to do, and was amusing himself by seeing how long they’d draw it out.

The decision that the corridor of contested land would be measured and the new boundary would be placed right down the center of it was exactly the finding the King of Gondor would have arrived at had it been his kingdom where the argument was being presented, and by that time the two landholders were both grateful to have it finished. When the Farozi added that they would have to pay his surveyor to come to measure it out, and that if the argument was broached before him ever in the future both would lose their lands to the crown, they didn’t quibble further, and both bowed deeply and backed from the room grateful he didn’t charge both with substantial fines for wasting so much of an afternoon.

Éomer shook his head as he watched the two of them and their followers and various witnesses and such finally clear from the Farozi’s throne room. “Wise decision, Lord Farozi,” he said. “Although had it been I who was asked to make such an obvious ruling I might well have required a good stallion or brood mare from each for my trouble.” Faramir laughed aloud.

Once Aragorn translated this, the Farozi laughed also. “I will have to consider such a strategy in the future, my friend.” A servant approached and murmured to him, and he nodded his understanding as he turned to his guests. “Your ladies have returned, my lords. And I understand, my Lord An’Elessar, that you have additions to your household.”

Raising his brows with interest, the King of Gondor and Arnor rose. “Then I suspect I ought to attend on my wife to learn what changes these additions will lead to. With your permission, my Lord....” He rose and bowed respectfully, then turned and left the room to seek out Arwen and find what had been done that afternoon.

A formal sitting room had been given to the use of the Northerners, and it was to this room that the Lady Arwen had led her new acquisitions; and it was here Aragorn found them. He examined the two individuals whom his wife faced with curiosity and growing understanding. At last he said, “I see you found the slave market.”

“Yes.”

“How did these come there?”

With a nod toward the tall, muscular black Man, “Capture,” and toward the delicate girl, “To resolve her father’s debts.”

Aragorn son of Arathorn could feel the fury that his wife kept under rigid control. Looking to the girl, he asked in Haradri, “What is your name, child?”

“I am called Hasturnerini,” she said in a low voice.

“Where were you born, Hasturnerini?”

“Here in Thetos. My father and I had a small house not far from the river.”

“Your mother is dead?”

“Yes, Lord, many years ago.”

“How did your father lose his wealth?”

“We never had great wealth, Lord. He was ill, and the healers must come often. He sold jewelry we once owned to pay. Then he was dead, and the healer and another came with papers and officers of the guard to say that the debts were too great, that all we’d had was theirs now, that I was a slave. I’ve never been a slave. I don’t know how to be a slave.”

“Yes, I can see this is so.” He looked at the doll and the case, then looked at his wife.

“We found some of her family’s goods in the marketplace. I purchased some of them for her.” Arwen’s voice was still low and controlled.

“We cannot leave her behind with no family to care for her interests--they’d only take her again and sell her once more before our ship was well clear of the harbor at Risenmouthe.” Aragorn sighed as he looked on her again. “We will see about clothing you suitably. We cannot keep you as a slave, Hasturnerini, for such is not lawful among our people. Will you accept working for our family until you are of an age to live on your own?”

“What would I do?”

“Can you sew or weave?”

“I’ve never done either.”

“Would you like to learn?”

“I don’t know.”

The King shook his head. “Ah, the honesty of childhood,” he commented. Again he looked into the girl’s eyes. “Are you willing to try to learn sewing and weaving? And other languages than Haradri?”

“Yes.”

Relieved, Aragorn nodded. Others were now coming down the corridor to the salon in which they stood. Arwen asked, “What do you think to do, Estel?”

“She’s not apt to be a maid, my love; so I thought perhaps she might be apprenticed to you.”

“Apprenticed to me?” The Queen sounded amused.

“You are a master embroiderer, after all, beloved. And it would fit both their laws and ours, once we settled the articles of indenture.”

Ruvemir entered with Gimli, Isumbard, and Owain, having spent a good part of the afternoon in the company of the Priest of Amon, who’d taken them to the temple areas to examine the sculpture and architecture of Harad. “What is this about indentures?” asked the sculptor.

“Not to you this time, Master Ruvemir,” the King said, smiling. “No, this time it would be my lady wife who would hold the articles.”

“This child?” asked Ruvemir. “Is she old enough?”

Aragorn sighed, and turned to the girl, addressing her again in Haradri. “How old are you, Hasturnerini?”

“Fourteen in a ten-day, sir.”

The King smiled. “Barely,” he reported to his sculptor.

*******

Benai had learned a few words of Haradri, but not much. The indications were that this Man who’d come to the side of the woman of stars was her husband, for certainly he was her match--tall, muscular (though nowhere as broad of chest and shoulder as himself), obviously intelligent, calculating, and as full of controlled anger when confronted by the girl and himself as the lady was. And, as with the woman, he was infinitely kind and gentle with the girl. As he asked his questions, the girl had answered, speaking for the first time since she’d been added to the string of slaves three days previous, her voice sweet and tremulous but increasingly confident as hope was restored to her.

His robes were rich and figured with the image of one of the Messengers crowned with a star. At the neck of the outer robe was a brooch also in the shape of a Messenger bearing a great green stone which had shone with his anger when first he arrived but whose light was now steady and soothing as he spoke with the girl. One of the three rings he wore was figured with the shapes of two serpents and set with a great emerald, with smaller emeralds for the eyes of the serpents, one crowned with flowers which were being eaten by the second. The second ring he wore held a great stone of black onyx which had been cut into a device Benai could not see, but had a single diamond in it again like a star. The third ring he wore was reflected in the match to it worn by his wife.

Lord and Lady they were, and full of majesty they were as well. Then had come the small one, whomever he might be, bearded, intelligent himself, his eyes as given to calculation and kindness as the tall lord, who questioned the lord’s decision, and smiled when apparently the question asked of the girl confirmed the decision was acceptable.

Behind the woman of stars had continued the guard of three bearing the image of a great silver Tree with white blossoms, two against a black background and one against white. Over the Tree on the outer garment of each were a winged shape whose meaning was unclear to Benai, for it was plainly no bird, and seven stars, set in the shape of a circle for the smallest of the three. Almost he appeared to be a child, save the face was mature for all he was beardless compared to the other Men Benai saw in this company.

Another tall, dark-haired Man with a short, neatly shaped beard joined them, his white outer garment again richly figured with a great star set in the center with a great gem. He joined the tall woman whose hair was as golden as the sun itself, put his arm familiarly about her shoulder. Behind him came another in greens and golds in a garment figured with the head of a hornless white grazing beast, its muzzle raised. His hair was as golden as that of the tall woman, as was that of the two who accompanied him. He approached one of the other women whose hair was dark but held a distinct reddish tint. He reached down to the wheeled chair, unfastened a belt, and lifted out a small child he handed to the golden woman, then did the same for the other child whom he held in his own arms. The woman whose dark hair appeared almost red put her arm about his waist. One in grey and silver whose robe was figured with the circle of seven stars came to stand with the woman who was behind the wheeled chair, on either side two more marked with the image of the trees, winged shape, and stars. Another of the small beardless folk moved to stand by the smaller guard; a youth stood near the small bearded one. Behind them were two more figures who stood together, one beardless, with sleek pale hair well past his shoulders, slender, yet, Benai sensed, deadly; the other shorter, infinitely strong, his hair and thick beard plainly reddish, leaning on a great war axe.

The tall Man was the focus of all, as he reached out a reassuring hand to the girl and smiled upon her, quietly speaking to her, outlining what he felt should be done for her. The hope on her face strengthened, and tears of relief began to fall from her eyes. The woman behind the chair moved forward, she who held no small child, and enfolded the girl in her arms in comfort. All were smiling now, then turned their attention to Benai.

The tall Man reached down and lifted the little girl who stood by the woman of stars into his arms, raised her up so she could look more levelly at Benai’s face. It was plain she was as much his daughter as she was that of the woman of stars. She, too, held stars in her eyes as did her mother, but the brows were a feminine form of her father’s, the cheekbones also inherited from him. Briefly she looked into her father’s face and smiled, that smile filling the room, then she turned to Benai and her face grew solemn and considering.

The Man asked him a question, but Benai did not understand. He asked it again in the tongue of this place, but Benai understood only the word meaning you. Then he asked again in the trader’s tongue, little of which Benai could understand; but it appeared he was asking for his name. “I am called Benai,” he answered. The tall Man repeated the phrase, question written on his face, and Benai repeated, “Benai.”

“Benai,” the Man echoed, and Benai allowed himself to smile briefly. “Good,” he continued.

The golden woman suddenly appeared startled, then looked at her small son and laughed. She said something, and Benai, smelling the scent of urine, realized the child had wet himself in the way of such young things, and all others laughed, distracted. Now they were beginning to disperse. The lady of stars said something and leaned forward to kiss her husband. He set his free hand momentarily on her shoulder, then slipped it free, allowing her to go off with the rest, leading the girl whose life she’d bought.

The tall Man moved to one of the chairs and sat in it, indicated another opposite him, indicated Benai should sit there. Uncertain, for his rough loin garment was, he realized, filthy with sweat from having been worn so many days without washing or changing, Benai shook his head uncertainly. Apparently the Man divined the source of his discomfort; he rose and moved to a wall where stood another chair of unpadded wood, brought this to sit opposite the chair in which he intended to sit, and set it for Benai, and with a nod of thanks the tall black Man dropped into it, suddenly aware of just how weary he felt.

The father let his daughter slide to stand upon the floor, went to one knee in front of Benai, put his hand to the pulse at his neck, called over his shoulder to the small guard and gave him instructions. With a nod and word of respect that one disappeared, followed by his short fellow. Soon the other returned with a vessel of water and a glass to drink from, filling the glass and handing it to the Man, who offered it to Benai. Benai accepted it readily, drank deeply, then stopped lest he grow ill with too much too soon. He closed his eyes, savoring the relief of his thirst; when he opened them again, he saw the approval in the bearded Man’s eyes.

“Good,” the tall Man said once again. He again examined him, then spoke to another of the guards, who went off to bring to him a Man who resembled the woman whose dark hair was touched with red, only older. He spoke with this Man, who nodded and went off once more. Benai sipped at his glass of water, and soon a tall Haradri entered followed by the Man who’d most recently left him. The tall Lord rose, spoke to the Haradri in his own tongue; the three discussed things at length. Finally the Haradri left, nodding and giving a bow, which the tall Lord returned.

The small one in the black and silver was approaching now, carrying a tray on which lay bread, fruit, and a slice of meat, and a goblet of some drink. As he came, Benai made a startling realization--he was barefoot and his feet had thick hair atop them, and his ears were slightly pointed. The small one looked between Benai and his lord, and the Lord took the tray with what must be thanks and held it out to Benai, saying something over his shoulder to the small one. That one looked about, chose a nearby small table, and brought it over so that the Lord could place the tray atop it. Realizing this was for himself, Benai again looked at the Lord, inclining his head in thanks. The Lord nodded, indicating that Benai ought to eat.

It was so good to have more than the poor fare he’d been given by the slavers, although he had to school himself to keep from bolting down this. He ate slowly, appreciating how good it tasted, then smiled with the relief he felt.

After he’d eaten the tall Lord again felt the pulse at his neck, indicated he wished to look into his mouth, examined his eyes carefully, checked over hands and fingernails, finally smiled again. The tall Haradri returned with a black slave, one in far better health than Benai felt himself, dressed in scarlet and gold over a white kilt. The tall Lord offered him thanks and apparently asked him to remain, then turned to the black slave and began to speak.

*******

“We do not know from where he comes, save that it is from far South of Far Harad,” the foreign lord said in lightly accented Haradri. “Lord Amonrabi has told me that you speak several dialects from South of Harad. Can you help me speak with him, do you think?”

“I do not know, mighty Lord,” Gefferel said. “There are many tongues spoken in the Southlands. However, with his size and breadth of chest, I suspect he might be from Matswali. I know two of the tongues of that land--I am willing to try.”

“Good enough,” the King said. “Please try.”

“Are you from Matswali?” Gefferel asked in one of the dialects he knew.

Benai felt relieved--he understood this tongue, for they’d often traded with the Matvania peoples. “I am not from Matswali,” he answered slowly. “I am from Camaloa.”

Gefferel was pleased to realize his first choice was understood, and translated to the foreign lord. “He says he comes from Camaloa, but he speaks some of the tongue of the Matvania language. Camaloa is a small land, far South and West, near the Western Sea. They are a strange people, much given to fishing and sailing upon the waters. Their Men train to fight with long swords, similar to yours. It is said they worship the stars, and you can see--” he indicated the star pattern of scars on Benai’s chest, “--that it appears to be true. Many have star patterns carved into their flesh.

“They do not take slaves or sell them, and when they find slavers in their lands they will kill them and free those they have taken. Their language is very different from that of most of the peoples here in the southern lands. They are said to be fierce warriors; that they have taken this one is unusual, but not unheard of.”

The King nodded his thanks, then turned his attention back to the other. Indicating Gefferel should translate, he began to question his wife’s acquisition. “Your name is Benai?”

“So I have been called, but I have disgraced my name, allowing enemies to come upon our village and take all.”

“I am told you are a very careful people, and fierce in your hatred of slavery. How was it they came upon your village?”

“There was a wedding, and even those on guard about the village were more intent on the wedding than on watching for enemies. We ought to have been on guard--we’d been warned the G’bani people watched for a chance to take slaves. We kept watch very hard for several weeks, but did not see them. Somehow they appear to have learned of the wedding, and they came as we prepared for the wedding feast. All were watching the preparations. I ought to have been on watch as well--they would have been seen if I’d been on watch.”

“Why were you not on watch that night?”

“I was the bridegroom.”

The King took a deep breath, and shook his head. “Sweet Valar,” he murmured. “Your bride?”

“They killed her.”

The questioning went on for some time as the details were slowly brought out. It became increasingly evident that Benai had taken all guilt upon himself. He’d been in the place of gatherings in the midst of the village, had been led to his place of honor by his father and one brother and four of his friends and the bride’s brother, had been made to sit. The binding of hands was over and the bride had been sat beside him, and they were opening the cooking pits to bring out the food for the feast when the assault came. He had no idea what had become of the guard on the approaches to the village; only suddenly a great number of Men from the G’bani tribe were there. They were speaking the language of the G’bani people, and wore the cloth of the G’banis over their shoulders and had the peculiar squashed nose of the G’banis, so it was on this that he was certain they were indeed G’banis.

Benai had been seated and had found at least five Men piling themselves upon him, and when he sought to struggle one struck him on the temple with what felt like a club or a stone. He was stunned, and when he awoke at last the assault was over. The leader of the assault was furious with those who had fallen on the bride--she, too, had been struck to stun her, but it had killed her instead. Then the prizes were divided amongst those who’d taken part in the raid--it appeared at least four villages of the G’banis had been involved. Eight of his folk fell to the group who were given himself, three of them women. What befell the women---- His face was stricken with the horror of it. Two of the Men were led Eastward; one was killed when he tried to escape; he and the remaining one, one of the bride’s kin, were brought to the north coast and sold to some who had a slave ship, who had brought him to Thetos. His fellow had died on the slave ship, and so it was that only Benai had come to the slave market.

“Where were you struck on the temple?”

Benai indicated the place, and Aragorn placed his fingers there, let them feel deep---- He sighed as he at last straightened. Benai had not lied--there had been a small fracture there on the edge of the hollow, although it was knitting well at this time. He saw a distinct look of surprise and relief in Benai’s face.

It was then that Hardorn came into the room. “I’ve had a bath readied for him, Aragorn,” he said in Adunaic, “and it appears that the white robes you brought will fit him--they are loose enough.”

Benai straightened with shock. This had been spoken in a tongue so closely related to his own that he’d understood it. He turned to the newcomer. “How do you know our speech?” he demanded.

Hardorn and Aragorn were taken aback, Aragorn rising from where he’d crouched before Benai and looking at his cousin in amazement. In Adunaic himself, Aragorn asked, “I could ask the same thing--how it is you speak Adunaic?”

Benai rose and looked deeply into the face of the Lord opposite him. “We are of the Sea People’s descendants. Long ago--very, very long ago--a ship came upon the shores on the wings of a great storm, and it foundered upon the rocks. Our fathers and mothers came upon that ship. The local tribes took in the survivors, welcomed them, aided them. We became one people. But we honor Rendil, who was father to the first King of the Sea People from whom we are descended.”

He saw understanding on the face of the Man opposite him. Again the Lord looked to the one who’d called him Aragorn, then looked back at him.

“Tell me about this Rendil you honor. Who is he?”

“He is now the star of morning and evening. But a great sailor upon the seas he was, once on a time.”

The Lord nodded, his face smiling. He allowed himself to fold into the chair behind him, and indicated Benai ought to do the same. “Sit yourself down, cousin,” he said. “This explains a good deal.”

Amonrabi looked down on the face of their guest. “You can speak his language? Did you learn it on your journey here before, An’Horubi’ninarin?”

Aragorn looked up at his host’s brother, his face still alight with surprise. “No,” he said in Haradri, “I never made it even to Ephir. But the tongue he speaks by nature is the same as that which we--” he indicated himself and his cousin, “--were raised to speak. His people are also descended, apparently, from the refugees from Númenor. We had thought all the ships accounted for, but apparently they were not.” He turned to Gefferel. “You have said they fight with long swords such as we bear, and often bear with them star tokens and marks?”

“Yes, great Lord.”

“And they do not tolerate slavery?”

“That is true, great Lord.”

“And they build boats and sail upon the sea and fish?”

“Yes, great Lord.”

“Do they keep horses?”

“No, great Lord. Horses are not native to that area.”

“What is known of their fathers?”

“They claim their fathers came from the Sea on a great ship.”

King and cousin were both nodding as the King translated this to Hardorn in Westron. Aragorn looked once more on Benai. “Who was it who it is said led the ships away from the land of the Sea People?”

“His name was Lendil, Lord.”

Both Aragorn and Hardorn were smiling now. “Elendil the Tall,” Hardorn commented.

“Yes, it was said he was marvelously tall.”

Aragorn looked into Benai’s eyes. “I am the heir to Elendil through his son Isildur, through his son Valandil. I was born Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am the King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar of Arnor and Gondor. It is a wonder to greet kinsmen here, from South of Harad.”

“The lady of stars, your wife....”

Aragorn smiled gently, the love he felt for her obvious in his eyes. “She is the Lady Arwen Undomiel, now Queen of Arnor and Gondor. And she is the granddaughter, through his other son Elrond, of Eärendil the Mariner.”

Benai went very still, and then looked closely at Aragorn. He rose and bowed deeply. “Then it is that at last all has come to pass, and the children of the two sons of Rendil have indeed married and renewed our peoples within Middle Earth. You are, then, my rightful lord.”

“So it is, my brother. Sit and be glad. I cannot give you back what was lost, but can help you to bring about what will be. Are you willing to go with us so that in time we may bring you back to the remnants of your people, let them to know that they are not alone in the world?”

Benai gave a full smile. “Oh, yes, my lord--that I will do gladly.”

“What is it he says?” asked Amonrabi.

The King looked up at him. “He has acknowledged me as his kin and his Lord. He is willing to return to Gondor with us when we go.” Again he turned to Benai. “Tomorrow we will go to the practice ground that I might test your skill with swords. If you will, I shall make you part of our guard and particular guard to the Queen’s person for the time you are with us.”

“That would please me.” He looked to the Tree on the small one’s tabard. “Then, that is descended from Nimloth?”

“You know that story? Yes.”

He looked at the King’s daughter. “And this and the other are your children.”

“Yes, our daughter Melian and son Eldarion.”

Benai smiled. “Melian--she of the girdle.”

The King smiled indeed.

“And Eldarion means?”

“Son of the Elves.”

“There are many Elves left in the world?”

“There are yet some left in Middle Earth, but most have sailed to Aman, to what is their rightful, proper land.”

“Is the one of golden hair and no beard an Elf?”

“Yes, Legolas is an Elf, and he lingers in Middle Earth yet a time, for my sake and for the sake of his great friend, Gimli son of Gloin, who is a Dwarf. And my wife’s brothers and grandfather, and some of the folk of Lorien and Rivendell, of the great Greenwood and of Mithlond yet remain, but they are but few compared to the number that once dwelt in the mortal lands. They leave Middle Earth to such as you and me, our brother.”

Benai gave a great sigh, and his head rolled back on his shoulders. His relief was plain to see. “We are not alone.”

“No, brother, you are not alone. A bath has been prepared for you, and robes you can wear for the present. Arwen will delight to craft clothing for you in keeping with that of your own people, and in keeping with your new status as her guard.”

“Thank you. To bathe--it will be a blessing.”

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