Faramir took the Star of Elendil and the Sceptre of Annúminas and saw them returned to their case, while Aragorn stripped off his formal robe and put on a loose shirt in its place, then took out one of the desert robes and began to don it.
“What do you intend to do?” asked Faramir.
“I need to get out of the city for a time,” the King answered him.
Ankhrabi came down the passage to the guest quarters, his face concerned. When he realized An’Elessar’s intentions, he said, “I will go with you, my friend.”
The rest were looking to one another when Legolas said, “I will watch then from afar and allow the two of you some privacy. But we will not allow you to go out totally unattended.”
After looking at the Elf unblinking for several moments, the King finally, reluctantly nodded. “Thank you, mellon nin.”
“I’ll meet you in the entrance hall, Aragorn.” The Elf went out, sharing a smile with Gimli as he returned to his own room to get what he felt he’d need.
Hardorn’s face was quite still. Finally he said with surprising gentleness, “Take your bow and a dagger, and maybe some throwing sticks. Perhaps you can bring back some ducks.”
“I have ready the bird bow and darts I’d told you of, An’Elessar. You might try it. I’ll go and fetch it and some throwing sticks--perhaps some food and a blanket roll for each of us for the night. I, too, wish to be out of here for a time.” Ankhrabi’s expression showed concern, but also understanding.
Aragorn removed the desert robe he’d started to don, took out instead his cloak from Lothlorien, flung it about his shoulders and fastened the leaf brooch. He carefully placed Anduril and its sheath back into the weapons chest and took out his dagger, bow and quiver. Pippin had hurried off to his room when he realized the King intended to go out, probably for the rest of the night, and now came back with his waterskin, obviously just freshly filled. “Here, Aragorn, take my water bottle.”
The tall Man looked down on his smallest Captain of the Guard, then inclined his head gracefully. “Thank you, Pippin,” he said quietly, then knelt and embraced him, receiving a hug in return.
“It’s been one thing after another after another, hasn’t it, Strider? You go out under the stars and remember he’s most likely doing the same, and take comfort in that.” The Thain’s son pulled back and looked up into the King’s face. “You meant what you said about you feeling his healing in your heart, didn’t you?”
Aragorn’s expression softened, and a smile made its way briefly onto his face. “Yes, Pippin, I did.”
Aragorn stood up, leaned down to caress Eldarion’s head, kissed Arwen and murmured something in Quenya into her ears, leaned down to do the same with Melian, saluted the rest, then started for the door. Without a word Benai handed him his healer’s kit and personal satchel. Ruvemir stood by the doorway, looking up at him. He took something out of his pocket and held it out to his liege lord. “Here,” he said, “you might need this--you never know.”
Aragorn reached down to accept a Hobbit handkerchief, looked at it with interest and a return of his usual humor to his face, then looked back to the sculptor with a raised eyebrow. Ruvemir smiled. “Lord Samwise gave me another box just before we left Eriador, my Lord King. Just in case, mind you.”
The King was tucking it inside the sleeve of his shirt, laughing, as he followed Ankhrabi down the hall toward the Haradri Prince’s apartments.
Ankhrabi was glad to see the easing of the King’s attitude as they went. It was, he knew, the first time the King had been in this part of the palace complex, and he gave a sideways look to see how he was taking it. Much of the guest wing had been left with plainly plastered walls, although there were lily and lotus designs here and there. In the wing to which they went now the walls were painted here with hunting scenes, there with a scene of a former Farozi riding to war in his chariot, along this section of the hallway a great lord sitting at ease in the garden with his wife and family. The Lord An’Elessar was, he realized, examining each of these as he passed it. As they approached one on guard, Ankhrabi slowed to address him. “Mapelrabi, will you please advise Gebsohrabi to prepare to accompany me. We will be going out to prepare to hunt in the morning.” The Guard bowed, his free hand over his breast, and withdrew, Ankhrabi absently acknowledging the bow with an inclination of his head.
Lady Avrieth was just now coming out of Nefirnerini’s quarters, she carrying Elboron and Hasturnerini leading Elfwine as they passed them. Hasturnerini gave a well-executed curtsey, which was acknowledged by both Men with definite bows, and she smiled with pleasure and accomplishment as she followed Berevrion’s wife back toward the guest wing, the two of them followed by Haleth who gave a brief salute as he passed, keeping most of his attention on his charges. They paused outside the rooms given to the use of the Prince and his wife. Ankhrabi noted that most of the stiffness in the King’s posture had begun to loosen. “Good,” he commented. “You no longer look like one of the images upon the wall. They are good for you, those who came with you--help to ease the tension.”
“The fate of Setra’amun and the one from the red temple disturbs you?”
“Yes, and mostly for sake of the younger one.”
“I don’t know how long they will survive in there in the darkness.”
“I suppose not. I wish there had been a way to call him back.”
“For some there is no way.” Ankhrabi pushed the door open and they went in. Ankhsarani and Nefiramonrani were kneeling over a chest of clothing for infants, obviously discussing what might be worn by the coming child. Ankhsarani’s face held a level of wistfulness as she’d not been able to share in this joy as yet, and who knew now if she might know it in the future? After all, she was no longer of an age to be sought as a bride among her people. Ankhrabi smiled to acknowledge his sister-in-law, and leaned over his wife. “I will be going out with An’Elessar, Nefirani. We’re going out to sleep under the stars and to hunt ducks again in the morning. He finds he needs to be away.”
“You do not go unattended?”
“Prince Legolas and Gebsohrabi will be attending us, and we’ve seen already that An’Elessar is an army almost of himself. With no knowledge by others we go out, and with such guards, this time I am certain we will be safe enough.”
“If you are certain, beloved. I would not lose you.” They kissed, and he straightened. Indicating his guest ought to remain there, he went into an adjoining room. Nefiramonrani watched after him, some anxiety in her eyes.
“Legolas and I will do our best not to allow him more hurt, my Lady,” Aragorn reassured her. “And I will be able to keep an eye on his wound.”
Lady Ankhsarani asked, “Do you find at times that to be King is almost more than you can bear?”
He gave a brief, rueful smile. “Even after ten years such times still happen, when I find myself needing to get away from the Citadel and all attendant on it. I was a Ranger of Eriador for far longer than I’ve been King.”
Ma’osiri and Amon’osiri entered the room. Both stopped in surprise to see the visitor, then smiled and came forward. He reached out his hands and drew them to him, his own smile lighting his face, a sadness there also, however, for the other brothers who were now being separated this night.
Amon’osiri said quietly, “I told him the one who shot him is being given to the temple of Seti. He asks if he will come out again.” Ma’osiri nodded to indicate his brother spoke truly.
An’Elessar’s smile faded, his face becoming sad. “No, he will not come out again, not in this life. He has chosen the dark; I only hope he will go through it into the light again there.”
Ma’osiri nodded, whispered, “I am sorry.”
Aragorn said quietly, “As am I. Let me look at your throat.”
He knelt and carefully removed the bandage, placed his fingers over the healing wound and allowed his fingers to feel deeply--and felt suddenly a warmth to his fingertips answered by a similar warmth in the area around the wound, felt more of the damaged tissue begin to knit and heal. His eyes closed and his mouth opened slightly.
When at last he pulled his hand away and opened his eyes, the boy looked up at him slightly surprised, touched his throat gently with his own fingertips. Gently the boy cleared his throat, and murmured, “It feels better.” The Man kneeling before him nodded. “Does it surprise you sometimes when it happens like that?”
“Then--then it’s not exactly you doing it.”
“I can direct it in many cases; but many times it simply flows through me; and occasionally what it touches is not what I’d thought to be the major hurt but is indeed what needs to be healed first.”
The child nodded. “They sent me back, but you were there.”
“Only to guide you back if you could come away.”
“Will I be able to go back there again some time?”
Now the King was smiling. “We will all go there at least once, Ma’osiri. Yes, when the time is right you will be able to return there and go beyond it.”
“But I won’t leave soon,” the boy said thoughtfully. “Not until it’s time.”
“For now you must learn and do what you can here, with your brother and your family and your people.”
The boy nodded again thoughtfully, then reached out to hug the King about the neck, a hug Aragorn returned in kind, then reached out to include Amon’osiri in the hug, then pulled away to leave the two brothers holding one another.
A low couch was nearby, and with a slight, “Please excuse me,” he sat upon it, brought out the square of cloth from his sleeve and wiped his face with it. Ankhrabi came out of the inner room changed to a more utilitarian white kilt, a single pendant of an Ankh about his neck, a green hooded robe over his arm, carrying a number of throwing sticks, two bird bows and quivers of bolts, and a small bag over his shoulder. He looked on his sons, saw that Ma’osiri’s bandage was removed and that the skin over the wound looked pink and fresh, then knelt to look into his sons’ eyes, looking from one to the other. “You are both so precious to me,” he said gently, reaching out his arm to encompass them. “Lord An’Elessar and I will be going out for the night and will return in the morning--with ducks, I hope. And then we shall have Captain Peregrin prepare them for us, for he knows just how to do so.”
“Enjoy yourself, Babari,” Ma’osiri said.
“I will miss you, Baba,” his brother added as the King rose from his seat.
Kissing both of them, their father rose, leaned down to kiss his wife, smiled at her sister, then went out, looking into his daughter’s room where she sat with the two older daughters of Lord Rustovrid and bade her a good night and receiving a kiss from her also, and led his guest out and toward the kitchens. There he talked to a lesser cook and obtained some food for them to enjoy during the night and in the morning to come, and then they went to the main entrance room where Legolas and a guard from the palace awaited them carrying bedrolls, and after all had donned their cloaks or outer robes together they went out.
Both the King and the Elf pulled their hoods over their heads, and as they walked through the streets of Thetos none appeared to remark them. Once they’d left the city behind them Ankhrabi led them through the fields upriver rather than down until they came to a stand of date palms. He looked questioningly at the other three, and at their nods of approval they stopped there and set out bedrolls, then sat quietly together looking at the growing dark. Aragorn and Legolas pushed back their hoods and sighed. The King pulled his satchel off his shoulder and reached within, then pulled something out, laughing gently. Legolas looked at him with a raised eyebrow, as An’Elessar examined the object, then held it out. “Pippin put in his pipeweed pouch.” The Elf touched it gently, then pushed it back toward his friend.
Aragorn pulled his pipe out of the satchel and filled it, brought out his striker out of a pocket, and soon had it lit and was puffing at it. He examined the guard. “You are Gebsohrabi?” he finally asked.
“Yes. My mother was a daughter of An’Horubi by a concubine, and she grew up in the house of An’Sohrabi before he became Farozi. My father was in An’Ma’osiri’s personal guard, and later An’Sohrabi’s. I’ve grown up in my uncle’s house, and when we were small children my Lord Ankhrabi and I often played together. Lord Bherevrid trained me to serve as a guard, and I usually accompany my lord cousin when he wishes but one guard.”
“It sounds much like Hardorn and myself, for we are cousins as well. He was so intent on mastering weapons and seeing to my safety and so good at what he did that I sent him to Imladris to learn of my brothers how to be better. He’s almost as good with a sword or knife as I am, and a better archer. He’s better with many other weapons as well. The only reason he didn’t insist on accompanying me was because Legolas came with me.”
“Lord Legolas is as good as you?”
The Elf answered, amused, “I am better--but then I’ve had a far longer time to perfect my skills. Also, being an Elf I can remain awake and aware several days in a row while he can barely stay awake for three nights running any more.” He accepted some of the dried fish, bread, and cheese from the supplies brought from the kitchens, took a drink from his water bottle, then indicated he would go out further and take the first watch.
Gebsohrabi watched the Northerner finish his pipe. As the ashes were being knocked out of it he asked, “Do many of your people do this?”
Aragorn shrugged. “It is common enough in the far North, but uncommon in Gondor itself. I began smoking after I returned to my people after I came of age, but almost gave up the habit for many years while I served in Rohan and Gondor and traveled in Rhun and here in Harad and Far Harad. Then, after I rejoined the Rangers of Eriador I began doing it regularly again, although perhaps I’d have done as well not to start smoking at all. It’s a difficult art to develop at the first, for it is harsh on the lungs; and some I’ve had to advise to stop its practice. However, when I am under stress it appears to help me calm and think. However, other activities can achieve the same ends, as my beloved wife and my brothers like to remind me.”
“Why did you choose to leave the palace this night?”
The King was quiet and thoughtful, turning his pipe in his fingers, his attention apparently fixed on watching the play of reflected light and shadows on the thing. Finally he said, “For me, to order an execution is very difficult, and I do not do it lightly, although I have ordered such when they are needed--I have even executed Men myself when it was necessary.” He looked up sideways at Gebsohrabi. “I will be aware when the woman Mayanerini dies. I know what she did was heinous--she has apparently been able to avoid detection of the poisoning of her husband for years and has arranged the abduction and enslavement of her daughter’s husband and was in the process of poisoning her daughter’s children when she was found out at the last. I believe, in accordance with my experience with such folk before, that if she were pardoned she would become more mad and others would only suffer the worse for it as her rage toward the world spreads. She has earned her sentence and the people among whom she might move deserve to be protected from her form of madness. But--I will still feel it when she dies. I will be aware of the moment when the air stops flowing and of the fighting to make it resume, and the final loss of consciousness ere the life flees.
“I already feel the terror of Setra’amun, and I do not know when it will end. I feel the fear of four of the nobles and the acceptance of one of them and the towering rage of another and the numbness of the rest as they await the arrow in the morning. They are not my people, and so I do not feel it as strongly as I would at home; but because I have become aware of them I feel it.
“I need to counter this awareness. I must not become hardened to it where I dismiss it, or it will destroy my humanity. But I must balance it with the realization most people are not that way, that most people cannot become deluded into doing what they know is wrong simply because it would benefit them in some way or because they were ordered to it. I need to know that there are those who will love others if they get the chance, and that there is pleasure as well as disgust in opening myself to others.
“I need to know that the stars are still there for our consolation and guidance, and at times I need to open myself to feel the love of the Valar and the Voice of Iluvatar in my heart.
“Sometimes I need to counter an execution by being surrounded by those I know love me; other times it is better to be away from them--from most of them, at least. And tonight I can understand more strongly why it was that Frodo decided to exile himself from Middle Earth.” He looked off over the river toward the desert on the Western Bank. “I know I have no reason to feel this way, but just having been in the presence of Mayanerini and Setra’amun and some of the others condemned today has left me feeling tainted.”
“Gebankhrabi struck me that way,” Ankhrabi said, shuddering.
Aragorn shrugged. “I cannot begin to put myself into his mind, and so his fate does not disturb me; but I can understand the lure of questions that need answering and the disappointment when what I’d hoped to be exotic answers turn out to be mundane, or the desire not to allow changes in relationships that must come in time. I have regretted my daughter leaving the innocence of infancy for the awareness and basic selfishness of childhood. It is with a level of horror that I realize I can almost begin to see how it is that Mayanerini has come to what she has, or how I might have done much as Setra’amun has done. I do not believe I will be much aware of the priest’s end, but I will feel that of Setra’amun.”
After a time the Northerner shook himself. “I will lie down and try to sleep, if I can.”
He slipped off his grey cloak, lay down within the bedroll given him with the cloak settled over all, and remained still, staring up at the stars. After a time his eyes closed and his breathing deepened, until suddenly he jerked awake and sat up abruptly, his face tense. At last he took a deep breath. “The woman is dead,” he said quietly.
He lay back down, turned on his side away from them. For a time he lay still, then sat up with a sigh and reached for the water bottle and uncorked it to take a drink, then paused, the bottle held open near his face. “Bless Pippin,” he murmured. “Bless Pippin and Sam. Even when Sam’s not here, he still anticipates my needs.” He spilled some of the water from his bottle into his hand, rubbed it on his face, spilled some more into his hand and sipped at it. Then he carefully corked the bottle and set it down by him. Again he lay down on his back, looking up, and slowly his body eased. At last again his eyes closed, and when at last he rolled on his side, definitely asleep, he rolled toward the others.