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41
Traveling Companions

Traveling Companions

Ankhrabi awoke, a bit stiff, just as the swift sunrise began to lighten the Eastern horizon. He could hear singing, and realized that An’Elessar was sitting up on his rolled blankets, his grey cloak about his shoulders again, greeting the sunrise with a song in Westron about roads and following them. He looked to be calm enough, the Haradri prince noted with relief. Ankhrabi rose, went into the grove a bit deeper to relieve himself, and returned to cleanse his hands with the water from his water bottle before he began to remove food from the bag given them in the kitchens.

Gebsohrabi was now on watch, although where Prince Legolas might be was uncertain. Ankhrabi prepared portions for his guest, guard, and self, setting some aside for the Elf on his return. An’Elessar accepted his share of the meal with quiet thanks, rose briefly and faced West, then sat to eat with a degree of pleasure.

“When we are through,” the prince asked, “would you like to practice with bow and throwing sticks before we go to the marshes?”

“After I’ve checked your wound, certainly,” Aragorn said, smiling, and Legolas, appearing in their midst like an apparition, also indicated his willingness to try as he took up his share in the breakfast.

The Elf quickly understood the basics of how to use the throwing sticks, and by his fifth cast with one he had hit the target of a particular branch on the date palm twice; by his ninth Aragorn had managed to hit it once. He was more successful with the bird bow, and soon they were skirting around Thetos and following the Risen Northward to the delta channels.

They hunted all morning, and by the time the Sun was high they had eighteen birds among them. The King, Ankhrabi realized, preferred to hunt humanely, and was not happy with himself if the kill wasn’t clean. He’d reverted to the use of his own bow fairly soon so that he could guarantee as little pain to the birds as necessary. “I’ll keep working with them and try using them again in the valley of the Anduin in the fall,” he decided, “but I’ll use my own bow for the rest of today’s hunt.” He carefully and expertly gutted his share of the prey, and quickly fastened them to his belt.

Ankhrabi found his own aim was not as true as it usually was, and An’Elessar attributed it to the tightness of the upper shoulder muscles since his wounding. After considering this, Ankhrabi found himself agreeing the King was most likely correct.

They were all happy enough as they headed back into Thetos, stopping to retrieve their personal satchels and bedrolls where Legolas had hidden them for safety within a tree, and they were nearing the outskirts of the city when the King stopped, his face going suddenly white and his gaze unfocused. The others watched him with concern. Finally he shook his head with a grim expression and, looking as if to make certain of their own safety, gave a shrug and indicated they should continue on their way.

On their return the King asked his wife to accompany him to the bathing chambers, and examining his face she opened his healer’s kit and brought with her a leaf of athelas. The rest watched after with varying expressions. When Lord Hardorn looked back at Ankhrabi with questions in his eyes, the Haradri shrugged. “He explained last night how he felt part of what those who were to die themselves feel, but then he appeared calmed and not unduly concerned save for the time he said the woman died. Something appeared to happen as we were returning from the hunt, however, that disturbed him, and he would not say what.”

Captain Peregrin agreed with pleasure to accompany Ankhrabi to the kitchens to assist in the preparation of the ducks after the noon meal was finished, and Ankhrabi took his leave to go bathe and prepare for the meal himself.

Aragorn didn’t appear for the noon meal, but was there for the evening one, somewhat quiet save when praising the duck.

Pippin smiled. “Nubiranabri and I exchanged a few recipes today, and I’ll have to teach someone in Minas Anor how to dry mushrooms before I return to the Shire. He’s most insistent he must have some at least from time to time.” All laughed.

An’Sohrabi saw that his guest was eating only lightly. “What troubles you, my friend An’Elessar?” he asked.

Aragorn shrugged. “It is not a fit subject to discuss during a meal, my Lord Farozi.”

“I see. Your visit is due to be completed in three days’ time.”

“Yes. Already we have been gone too long from our own lands.”

“I ask that you take with you some more guests.”

The King looked at him with interest. “And who will these be, my friend?”

“My son and his family and Lady Ankhsarani, if that be acceptable to you. My son and grandson recover quickly, but are not yet fully restored; I would not have them separated from you until they are.” The twins’ eyes were excited as they sat up on their couches to peer at their grandfather with more curiosity. “Also, Lord Ghants’pa’amon desires to return to your land to continue trade talks with Prince Imrahil regarding cloth and leathers. I am pleased he is now more--enthusiastic--than he was previously about the idea. I feel he is now better disposed to accept partnership with Dol Amroth.”

“It would be a great honor to show your son’s family our land, An’Sohrabi, and Prince Imrahil and Elphir will be fully glad to treat with Lord Ghants’pa’amon again on a more positive basis. There is one difficulty which I hope you will consider--we do not allow slavery in our lands, and by our laws any who enter Gondor or Arnor as slaves are declared free on their arrival on our shores.” An’Sohrabi exchanged looks with his son and daughter-in-law. “However, I do offer a solution; I will now offer to purchase the freedom of any whom you would have accompany them, and they may freely enter our lands as paid servants, if they willingly agree to remain in your employ on such condition.”

“That would be acceptable to us, my Lord King,” An’Sohrabi indicated. “I will discuss this privately with my son and his wife and his wife’s sister and Lord Ghants’pa’amon to see what settlement will need to be made and will inform you of the results in two days’ time, if that is acceptable to you?”

The King and Queen of Gondor indicated their agreement.

“We will be hosting a feast your last night here in your honor, for you and all of your people. I hope this will be a pleasant evening, and I suspect many who did not come to greet you on your arrival will attend to give you honor now. That your visit has encompassed such--difficulties and yet we are more stable in our government in spite of all that has happened is of great import.”

“Thank you, my friend. We will be most glad to attend.”

When the evening was over they moved to the other end of the room of entertainment. Once all were seated and Lady Avrieth had brought the smallest children to join their parents, the Farozi asked, “Will you tell us now what troubles you, my Lord?”

The King sighed. “I cannot tell you precisely what happened at the time, but apparently as we were returning from the marshes the former priest assaulted Setra’amun--those emotions of which I am aware became highly agitated and fearful, then mightily angry. Then there was a feeling of triumph accompanied by a ceasing of any awareness of Gebankhrabi, not that I have had much awareness of him. The one remaining is growing increasingly isolated and fearful once more--that is all.”

“I see. This--gift--of yours is not always one of benefit to you, I see.”

An’Elessar gave a slight shrug, then sipped from the goblet he had brought with him from the table. Setting it on the edge of the planter beside his couch, he reached to take his son into his arms.

“I’ve asked some of our court musicians to attend on us tonight and to play and sing for us. I hope that will assist you to turn your mind to more pleasant things.”

“Thank you.”

Soon four individuals arrived carrying a variety of instruments. Once all was set in order and they had seen all tuned, they began to play. In time Ankhsarani sent for her zithern, and on its arrival she moved to join them. The music did indeed appear to soothe and distract the King, and when the song proved one he’d learned when in Harad before he asked if he might sing with the musicians. When at last all indicated they were ready to seek their beds, An’Sohrabi watched the more relaxed set of his guest’s shoulders with satisfaction. As he walked by his son back to their own wing he slipped his arm about the younger Man’s shoulders, grateful that Ankhrabi had been allowed to remain by him.

Master Ruvemir and Owain were much busy in the gardens. The sculptor had purchased a block of marble half his own height, and now was busily working it assisted by the youth and occasionally by the King, which surprised those in the Farozi’s household. Amonrabi had placed a canopy over the site at the mannikin’s request, and during the day many came to watch from time to time. At about midday of the day of the feast he appeared to be done, and left Owain to do the final polishing and took out a length of cloth offered him by the Queen with which to cover it over. Together master sculptor and King swept up the stone shards and saw to their disposal, again amusing the Farozi and amazing his folk.

The women walked often out into the city, visiting the markets, temples, and notable families living in Thetos; the King attended two meetings of An’Sohrabi’s Council and visited the temples and facilities associated with healing, and spent one evening in company with the herbalist for the temple of Geb, and the next he and his wife ate dinner with their ambassadors to Harad.

An hour before the feast was to begin on their final evening found the Northerners all back in their rooms carefully dressing. That the ladies all assisted one another remained a marvel to those who served in the Farozi's house. One of Nefiramonrani’s maids came in and helped some; but the fastenings and fashions of the clothing of the guests were strange to her, and she felt not only almost helpless but unnecessary. When she saw the King of Gondor himself assisting in the lacing of his wife’s dress she was simply amazed--and then the Queen was doing similarly for him.

Those from Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan stood by Ankhrabi and Nefiramonrani as the guests began to arrive, circlets of rank upon their brows. Aragorn wore a robe brought from Gondor, a resplendent blue embroidered with seven stars on one side and the White Tree on the other; his wife wore the maroon dress embroidered with elanor and niphredil her husband had given her as a gift after the birth of Melian. The exotic colors and designs intrigued the rest of the guests.

Great lords and ladies found themselves dining with desert chieftains and kafras of various sorts as well as a judicious selection of priests and priestesses. The meal was very formal, and all looked on the guards of honor for the Northern lords with interest as they stood in shining mail and resplendent livery in their places. Word that each of these was a notable also in his own land had spread throughout Thetos.

After the meal was over, Elfhelm and Mablung went out with Owain to fetch in the covered figure. The Lord King An’Elessar rose formally and bowed to their host. “My Lord Farozi,” he began, “Ruvemir son of Mardil of Lebennin, Master Sculptor of the lands of Gondor and Arnor, asks permission to make you this gift.” A servant of the palace carefully set a stand requested by the sculptor before his lord, and Ruvemir led those carrying the figure and directed its placement, then carefully pulled away the fabric which had covered it.

The Farozi An’Sohrabi leaned forward with interest, and examined the gift with great pleasure. It was a figure of himself seated in the chair of judgment in which he’d sat during the trials, wearing the crown of Harad and its insignias, crook and flail across his chest over the pectoral he’d worn with its insignia of Ra in splendor, the formal kilt and aproned sash easily recognizable, even the lacing of his sandals to mid-calf depicted. It was a blend between the formal stylization of Haradri sculpture and the naturalism preferred by Ruvemir; but there was no question it was beautifully done. It was accepted with greatest pleasure, and the satisfaction of the sculptor was plain to see.

The entertainment was applauded by all; the talk between Northern officials and the Haradrim was increasingly relaxed and satisfactory. Hobbits, Dwarf, Elves, and dwarfling sculptor were found to be courteous and approachable, if they still remained exotic in the eyes of the Haradrim. When at last those attending began to withdraw back to their homes, encampments, or quarters, all were pleased with the events of the visit. At last the guests returned to their quarters where formal clothing was doffed and most sought to get most of their effects packed.

The morning meal was quiet for the most part. Hardorn was overseeing the removal of their luggage to the barge. Elfwine and Melian sat on their fathers’ couches and ate thus beside them, and although it was plain that the Northerners were now desirous to return to their homes they also regretted the end of the visit. Kings and Farozi spoke quietly with one another, the three of them now displaying a mutual respect and honor that was heartening to the others to see. Ma’osiri and Ankhrabi no longer showed any signs of discomfort, and it was plain that all three of the Farozi’s grandchildren were anticipating their first visit to foreign climes with increasing excitement.

Sa’Amonri ate with them this morning, his couch by that of Sa’Harpelamun, speaking quietly with him.

Gebsohrabi was to attend on Ankhrabi along with three others. Lady Ankhsarani’s five attendants, whose freedom had been purchased by the King of Gondor and who now were paid servants, were seeing to the removal of her equipment to the barge; three servants were to attend on Ankhrabi and his family, and they appeared to be carrying less among the five of them than Nefiramonrani’s sister, which caused amusement among all. Lord Ghants’pa’amon and his wife were there, and the two serving them were also busy seeing to the stowing of their goods on the barge.

The meal seemed to be finished too quickly for the Farozi. As he finally rose he sighed, turning to the King of Gondor. “Too long it has been since I last saw you, An’Horubi’ninarin, and now I fear I shall not see you again in this life. I must bid you farewell now, and hope you do not remember your times in my land always with regret.”

“Regret? When my presence has assisted you to become so responsible a leader for your people? No, my Lord An’Sohrabi, I do not regret any of the time I’ve ever spent in your land.”

“When my time comes, if you can will you come to see me off?”

“If I am near enough to hand, my friend. Annúminas is almost restored; in a few years time I will be having to make regular journeys there so as to more equitably share my rule between the two sectors of my realm. However, no matter what else might be done, I will attend the investiture of your son with your office.”

“Then I will do my best to hold myself until you are reported to be in Minas Anor. I regret you must now leave us, but know your lands rejoice to see your return. And know that I entrust you with my greatest treasures to accompany you. I solemnly charge you to return them whole and healthy to me in a month’s time.”

“And so we shall, my friend.” King and Farozi looked deeply into one another’s eyes, then embraced.

When the Northerners had gone through their chambers to make certain all had indeed been found and readied for their return to their homes, they took up their personal satchels and walked out through the palace to the door to the water stair. Lord Amonrabi stood at the door there, waiting to take his leave of them “I grieve you must go from us. Perhaps without your assistance our land would have again come under the control of outsiders; because you were here we remain free, and my brother and Ankhrabi and Ma’osiri remain with us. I thank you--I thank you so deeply.” He bowed deeply to each of them. “Amon and the Lady Neryet--they have guided your steps here. May they ever do so.”

When the two Hobbits came even with him he went down on one knee. “And we thank you both for your meals. Perhaps one day some of ours may enter your land and know your hospitality. Go now, but return one day to our delight.”

Pippin and Isumbard both embraced the elderly steward, pressing into his hands more of the recipes Aragorn had assisted them to copy into Haradri the preceding evening. With a final salute from Benai, the last of the King’s party headed down the water stair to take his place on the barge where Lord Ghants’pa’amon’s party already waited.

An’Sohrabi followed with his son’s family, his hand on his son’s shoulder, the twins obviously wishing they could push by their father to come first to the barge, their aunt, mother, and sister following behind with those of their servants who were to accompany them, Gebsohrabi and the other two guards stepping onto the barge alongside their charges. As son, daughter-in-law, niece, and grandchildren went aboard they each paused and embraced An’Sohrabi, and he embraced them in return. Sa’Amonri now followed Sa’Harpelamun, who carried a small chest, a plain white bag over his shoulder. As they stood by the barge the older priest spoke quietly to the younger one, laying his hand on the young Man’s shoulder. What was said was uncertain to the others, but the younger priest’s worry fell away briefly as he smiled into Sa’Amonri’s eyes, and then he was stepping gingerly onto the barge and taking the seat indicated by the barge master as one of the ones manning the poles took his chest and set it with the others. Then came Rustovrid, his family, their servants and guards. All of the party from the North now rose together, and bowed in respect to the Farozi. He raised his hand in farewell, and at the order of the master of the barge those who manned the poles began to push off into the river’s current, and the return to Risenmouthe and the King’s ship was begun.

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