It was three days before they were ready again to try the road to Thetos. Ankhrabi sat before the King on Hirvuiloth while Lord Faramir carried Ma’osiri before him. Legolas rode by Gimli’s pony while Amon’osiri led that ridden before by his brother. Nefirnerini rode with Hasturnerini and Rustovrid’s younger two daughters behind where her mother rode between her sister and Lady Ghansaret. Melian rode by Elfwine with Owain and Ruvemir on each side and Lady Avrieth behind them, her husband at her side.
Elboron and Eldarion rode in their mother’s arms as Lothiriel, Arwen, and Éowyn rode side by side, all singing together a weaving song popular among the ladies of Gondor, while Éomer rode at the Farozi’s left and described, in a mixture of broken Haradri and Westron, the battle of the Pelennor Fields.
An’Sohrabi listened with interest, but always his eyes strayed to the two forms before King and Steward. Six soldiers sent by Afraim went before them; those serving as guards of honor were ranged on each side; behind were three more of his own nephews sent by Amonrabi. Alongside where Benai rode was the oldest daughter of Rustovrid and Ghansaret, speaking somewhat awkwardly as Benai answered the young lady’s questions in his uncertain Haradri.
They were both alive, his son and his grandson. And from the little the King had told him, it appeared the gods themselves had sent Ma’osiri back to them, deciding that he was needed here in the mortal lands yet. The boy was quieter, although that was to be expected, considering where he’d been injured. But his courage and determination to save his father had earned him the respect and honor of all, and for far more than his position by birth.
Ankhrabi often dozed in Aragorn’s arms, and the King was glad for it. He would not have wanted to take him on this journey yet, but both he and his father had been insistent. Only if he agreed to this position would the King agree, and there was a pavilion on the cart that followed them that would be erected immediately if he saw the slightest sign either he or the boy was beginning to flag. So far, however, both dozed frequently, but did not appear uncomfortable and showed no signs their lungs or wounds bothered them overmuch. Now and then Ankhrabi coughed up more phlegm black with old blood, but not as he’d done the first two days when it had been fairly constant. Their lungs were clearer by the hour, it seemed, and the dryness of the desert ride seemed to aid them, somehow--at least for the moment.
The King looked across at the boy in Faramir’s arms, smiled at the brooch which held closed the neck of the boy’s desert robes.
Last night as sunset approached he and Benai had been summoned to the temple of Neryet, where the high priest of Amon and the high priestess of Neryet had awaited them. Mablung and Sa’Amonri had accompanied them this time, and Sa’Harpelamun again sat before his master’s feet when they arrived.
The light fell full on the faces of the tall black Man and the pale-skinned King of Gondor, both now dressed again in pilgrim white. As they entered the court all eyes went first to the pool, where now seven golden lilies lay still open, seven blue ones, and one great white one.
Aragorn had looked down on them, and found himself murmuring, “Seven Stars and seven Stones and one White Tree.”
“Which signified what, great Lord?” asked the high priest.
“It is part of the rhymes of lore regarding the return of Elendil’s people to Middle Earth.
“Tall ships and tall kings, three times three.
What brought they from the foundered land, over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one White Tree.”
“And one of the ships that followed that of Elendil the Tall came to land here, South of Far Harad.”
“So it has proven.”
“And what do the seven Stars and Stones symbolize?”
“The Stars are the Elven Jewels worn in the circlets indicating our nobility, worn by Elendil, Isildur, Anárion, and the other princes of their house. I often wear the Star of Elendil--now the original gem, for Gimli found it for us in the treasure closet of Saruman in his keep a few years back when we went through Orthanc at the last.”
“What of the others?”
“They are kept close, those whose locations are known. The Stones are the palantiri, the seven Seeing Stones by which the princes of Elendil’s house could keep in communication with one another over far distances. Only two now remain in Middle Earth, that kept once in Orthanc, and the Amon stone which Lord Denethor held at his death. One other there may remain, but if so Lord Elrond carried it back to Aman with him when he sailed. The Ithil stone was lost at the last in the fall of Barad-dur, and none wishes to dig for it, if it was not smashed, for it lies in the midst of the ruins of the tower, which themselves were swallowed by the earth itself in the great earthquake that followed the destruction of the Ring.”
“I doubt Geb will look happily on any who seek to find such a token in the ruins of the tower built by the traitorous Death Eater.”
“So we, too, believe.”
“And the White Tree?”
The King smiled. “Sa’Harpelamun will see this with his own eyes when we return to Minas Anor, for its descendant blooms before the Citadel. Its ancestor grows in the midst of Tol Eressëa. A seedling from it was given to the Lords of Númenor, and Isildur brought one of its descendants with him on his ship.”
“And this is that tree?”
The Lord of Gondor and Arnor shook his head. “That tree was lost, and others since. I found the current Tree as a seedling and replanted it in the Court of the King. It has ever symbolized the line of the Kings, our fortunes and our relationship to those in the Undying Lands.” His smile was solemn and gentle. Much meaning, the priests realized, was attached to this tree.
A flight of white doves left the roof of the temple as the sun touched the horizon to the West, flew over the two Dúnedain, then circled both, the King three times, the black Man twice, before they flew Northwest, a few breaking away to fly Southwest. A golden falcon of Horubin flew out of the West to land before Benai, looked up at him, gave a call, then turned and rose into the air and flew Southwest after the smaller flight of doves. The priestess of Neryet watched after, her brows lifted, then returned her attention to Benai. “You must soon go back to your own people, see to their well-being.”
“Yes, I know this.” Benai had been learning Haradri, and had understood this easily enough.
“We ask only that you not lead your people against our land.”
“When I am restored to my own people and we have seen to it we are no longer threatened by the G’bani people, we will make a treaty with Harad, strengthening that shared with those of Gondor and Arnor who are our kinsmen, to guard the Southern borders of your lands.” He spoke that in Adunaic, and Aragorn translated it.
“I believe such a treaty would be accepted by our people,” the high priest of Amon said. Benai bowed in respect. The sun sank beyond the desert, and stars were now gleaming in the sky.
The priest turned his attention back to the Lord An’Elessar. “Your dream and that of Harpelamun both appear to have come to pass.” The King nodded. “How do you interpret the presence of the one you called Gil-galadrion in your dream?”
The King looked down thoughtfully. “You asked me whether I knew my brothers when they came at the appointed time. I told you I did not, not at first, but that I came to know them.” He raised his eyes to those of the priest. “My mother carried two others besides me, one who was intended to be my own twin brother, and the other to have been born two years after us. She lost the both. I learned of this only a few years ago, after I was already King.
“Both had been seen originally as being as important to the downfall of Sauron and the fulfillment of the time to come as myself. I was to become King and renew all; they were to assist me to the throne, although none knew how.
“After the two miscarriages, my mother became despondent. Those who had the gift of foresight saw that in time both would be sent back again, but not to her to bear. They would be born elsewhere, to other parents, in another land, to another people than the Dúnedain.”
The priest slowly nodded, and the face of the priestess became more intent.
“As a child I, too, dreamt of brothers for myself, a twin who was yet not like me in appearance, and one two years younger. These became the basis of the imaginary brothers with whom I played when I was yet a boy. In reading my mother’s journal I have found she had foreseen their appearance just as I’d dreamt them to look, and she’d planned to name them almost identically to the names I’d given them.
“From what we can tell, they were born Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire. Frodo, whose name among Elves is Iorhael, is the one my mother would have named Gilorhael and whom I called Gil-galadrion. Iorhael translates to Wise One; Gilorhael means Wisdom of Stars; Gil-galadrion means Son of Starlight. To me, Frodo either as himself or as my brother in my dreams is always connected with innocence and purity of intention--and is all too often sacrificing himself for others. I believe I was seeing the coming of the assault and the movement of Ma’osiri to come between those in the ambush and his father, his willingness to offer himself to save his babari.”
“Why is he yet alive?” asked the priestess.
“He was sent back.” He described what he had seemed to see when his spirit walked abroad to find the child, once he realized he’d not died in the desert.
“When you were there in the assault, you were certain he’d died?”
“I’ve never seen an arrow in the throat before that was not fatal, my lady. He looked up at me and tried to speak, told me to care for his father; then his head fell back and I thought he’d died. Arwen took him from my arms as I turned to Ankhrabi. I was barely aware of the coming of the Eagle, her mounting it with the help of Benai, carrying the child. I was mostly focused on Ankhrabi--didn’t even feel when the dart struck my leg.”
Priest and priestess looked at one another, and seemed to be in some quiet agreement. The priestess looked at the tall black Man. “You aided the Queen in her caring for the boy?” The King translated
“Yes, both in the desert and in our return here. When we returned they showed the child’s mother and me to her side; and when she called for the athelas I went to obtain it from the King. Throughout it all she sheltered the small spark of the child’s life, called him back to himself until he slipped away once more, further than she could go, for she knew not that way. Then she sent me to summon the King to come to her that he might aid in the calling back.”
“I see that you wear the gift of the Lady of Stars which she sent to you through the King.”
“Do you recognize it?”
He slowly nodded his head. “It was worn by one of my kin in another village. He disappeared ten years ago. He had taught me to wield a sword when I was a child, and I often served at his side in sending the slavers from our area and recovering those taken by them, both of our folk and of others from other areas.”
“Nine years back a soldier of our people came to the Valley. He had been exploring the jungles South and West of Far Harad, had found one who was plainly a warrior in the keeping of slavers of the G’bani, rescued him. He had been badly injured and the wounds had become infected. Yet he insisted in returning to the camp of those who’d held him captive, freed the other slaves, regained his sword, slew those who’d taken the slaves.
“Afterward our soldier tried to aid the warrior, but he was too ill. He begged the soldier to take his sword, make certain it would not come to a place where it would know dishonor. Finally he died. Not knowing how he might protect the sword from dishonor, the soldier brought it here. The one he’d rescued had a star pattern cut into his chest, and the sword had the star set into its hilt. In consulting the omens we realized it should go into the pool, and there it remained until my dreams spoke of the need for the King to take something from the pool to give to you, and it was the sword that he drew forth.”
Benai nodded his head with understanding as the King translated the words, and looked solemnly into her eyes. Finally she continued. “The Lady Neryet has given us the stars both for our delight and to give us the light we need in the darkest of times, and to guide our steps. At this time she desires that you take from the pool a gift for you to give to the King. You may approach the pool where you wish, reach into it once, and take from it what you find, and give it into his hand. He is not to watch you do this. He will know what is to be done with what she gives him through your hand.”
Benai looked uncertain as the King translated the directions given him, and looked into the King’s eyes for guidance. Aragorn gave a small shrug, smiled, and turned away from the pool, closed his eyes, clasped his hands behind his back.
He could hear the quiet movement of Benai as he neared the pool and as he circled it. He seemed to feel the Light of the Stars surround him, suddenly had a vision of Frodo holding in his open hands something which he looked on with delight, saw him turning to show him, to share the beauty of it with him, and he was looking into Frodo’s beautiful eyes with their dark lashes, rejoicing to see him well and happy again. Briefly they shared their look, the joy in knowing they were able to do this. Then at the entreaty of those eyes he looked down and saw the great butterfly which rested on Frodo’s hands, the shining of it as it caught Frodo’s own Light, like a star of exceptional beauty resting on his open palms.
One finger Aragorn reached out toward Frodo’s hand, and the butterfly flexed its wings, lifted off the palm of the Hobbit’s hand, flapped lazily and lighted briefly on the Man’s finger. It caught his own Light above its wings, Frodo’s beneath them, glowed as the Stars themselves shone on it as well. At last it lifted up, and both watched with pleasure as it flew upwards toward the Stars, bearing the share of their Lights it had received.
Briefly Aragorn was able to touch Frodo’s hand, and saw the tears of sheer joy in the eyes of his small brother as he touched back. And then he was being drawn back to himself by the clasp of a hand on his shoulder.
“My brother?” asked Benai in Adunaic. “My brother, what do you see?”
He looked up into Benai’s face, slightly confused. “The Light of the Stars in us, given back,” he murmured.
Benai saw the look of awe and joy the King’s face reflected, the single tear. He smiled his own smile, flashing in the starlight. “The gift is here, then, Lord Brother.” He held out his own hand, and in the starlight the King could see the paleness of its palm compared to the rest of the Man’s dark skin. His own right hand was, he realized, now in front of him, the index finger outstretched as if the butterfly had just flown from it. He turned his hand and opened it, palm upwards, and was not the least surprised to see the silver of his cloak brooch pressed into it, reflecting the Light of Stars.
He’d turned then to face priests and priestess, held out his hand to show what Benai had placed there. They could see it plainly, for they could see clearly about him the glow of his Light of Being, had been able to see it from shortly after he’d turned away from them; had seemed to see the reflection of another facing him, as tall and royal as the King himself, saw that the King and the other were in communion together. The Other had become obscured as Benai took what he’d found in the pool to bring it to the one who stood turned away from them and touched his shoulder. Yet, somehow, they realized that the true gift to the King was that communion, not what Benai pressed into the King’s hand.
This morning the King had fastened the star brooch at the neck of the desert robes Ma’osiri wore, just over where the healing wound lay under the bandage. He had looked into the boy’s eyes as he said quietly in Haradri, “To guide you ever where you must go.” Ma’osiri looked on it with surprise and some awe, then smiled up into his face.
Once Faramir was mounted on his horse, Aragorn himself had lifted the boy up into his arms. Hardorn had held Hirvuiloth’s bridle for him as he mounted, and Benai had lifted Ankhrabi up to sit before him to rest in the crook of his arm.
Now they rode easily, with no feeling by any that they must take care. They passed the outcrop where the assault had come before, and there was no movement. The wind had blown new sand over the way, cleansing away the blood which had been shed there; no feeling of evil lay there, only a feeling of solemnity.
Two more hours they rode, arriving at the Western Palace at midmorning, and they slid off their horses gratefully. Amonrabi was there waiting for them, and together he and Lord Afraim aided Ankhrabi to his feet. Then his wife was hurrying him indoors to his rest. Benai and Hardorn helped Aragorn himself to dismount. His leg was stiff from the riding, and then Arwen was beside him, giving their son into his hands, smiling a bit ruefully for the child needed to be changed. But she ran her hand over the wound, and it eased for him.
An’Sohrabi stood there smiling at them, his two grandsons embraced by him, his granddaughter beside him.
Sa’Harpelamun had ridden the horse ridden out into the desert by Ankhrabi, and it was plain he was unaccustomed to such exercise, that he was stiffer even than the King. “After we have rested some,” promised An’Elessar, “I will bring an ointment to you with which to rub the muscles of your legs. It will ease the stiffness.”
The young priest nodded his understanding and limped into the house to see where he might rest. Aragorn watched after with a smile which faded briefly as he thought of what was to come on the morrow.
Lord Amonrabi held out a thick packet wrapped in cloth. “This came for you yesterday, great Lord,” he said. “It came alone, and I was surprised, but thought I would bring it to you when I came to greet you on your return.”
“Thank you, Lord Amonrabi,” the King said with a brief bow as he accepted it. It was sealed, he saw, with the seal of the Houses of Healing. Inside was a second packet wrapped in parchment and a letter from Healer Eldamir. His smile returned, was delighted as he lifted the flap to see it contained a great many leaves of athelas.