Being able to utilize the current made the return journey to Risenmouthe much quicker than the trip South to Thetos had gone. Pippin began a walking song from the Shire which spoke of standing stones and secret gates, a song in which Isumbard, then King Elessar, the Lady Queen Arwen, Gimli, and finally Legolas joined. Prince Faramir followed that with a sea chantey commonly sung by the merchant seamen who brought their ships into the Harlond and frequented the inns of the First Circle, one which Queen Lothiriel plainly knew also. Gimli started one song, then at a glare from Legolas stopped it after four stanzas, grinning up at the Elf. Ankhrabi went next with a love song that was popular when he had married Nefiramonrani. All were calm and relaxed.
Once they reached the harbor of Risenmouthe they were tied to the same pier to which the barge had been fastened on their arrival; quickly each grabbed personal satchel, children were marshaled, numbers counted one last time, and they filed off the barge and began making their way up the ramp and down the dock until they reached the berth where the Gondorian ship rested. Its gangplank was already set in place, and as the King’s party approached the King’s Standard was deployed from the main mast. Captain and crew, all neatly garbed, stood to attention as their passengers approached, saluting. Royal guardsmen were lined up on the surface of the pier, were examined carefully by Lord Hildigor as if making certain he recognized each face, were given the same scrutiny by Captain Peregrin Took, and then at a signal by Lord Hildigor half moved to the opposite side of the pier, and the lines were stretched so as to guard against an attack from either end of the dock.
Ambassador Rustovrid and his family went aboard first, then Lord Ghants’pa’amon’s, Lord Berevrion identifying each individual to the purser so his or her name could be marked off or added to the list the Man kept. Then the party from Rohan went aboard, all treated with great respect, followed by Prince Faramir and family and their guards. Isumbard, Ruvemir, and Owain went next, followed by Sa’Harpelamun, who was then followed by those from the Haradri royal family and Lady Ankhsarani and their servants and guards. Captain Peregrin Took was then instructed to escort Hasturnerini and Benai aboard, followed by Hildigor escorting Lady Avrieth; Legolas and Gimli went next, and at last the King and his family boarded. Lord Hardorn, one of the new guards from the ship, and Gebsohrabi oversaw the transfer of the remaining chests and baggage from the barge to the Harthad uin Dún where Hildigor and another of Ankhrabi’s party saw to its distribution to cabins.
Once most of the passengers had been shown to their quarters to dispose of their personal satchels, the captain turned to his monarch. “There is one more matter which I must ask you to deal with personally, my Lord King.” At the King’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “There is one who has approached our people who has identified himself as Kafra Antipatha of the Batsis, and he has brought a gift for you which he would have you accept and carry home with you.”
Aragorn looked mystified for a moment, then shook his head. “Let me guess--a camel.”
The captain shook his head, smiling. “No, my Lord King, not a camel--or at least not a single camel--it is three camels, one male and two females, all quite young; and with them a store of feed to see them back to Gondor and a boy I am told is an orphan to care for them. Kafra Antipatha tells me he understands you could not take the last such gift from his family, and he hopes that you will accept these. As small as they are now they could be easily brought into the hold intended for horses.”
Accompanied by Mablung and an amused Berevrion the King hurried off to speak to Antipatha, but half an hour later as the last of the casks of fresh water were being loaded they returned, accompanied by the King’s gift from the Batsis. The sailors laughed as they carried the feed down into the stable area in the hold intended for carrying steeds for the King’s party should they need such on their arrival at their destination; and with much coaxing three small camels were brought there, also, lowered down into the hold from the arms of a sailor into Benai’s. The boy also came aboard and was assigned the cabin prepared for hostelers, and was amazed to find such large and fine quarters all to himself. The boy’s clothing was actually quite finely made and well cared for, if a bit worn; and he had two extra robes to change into as well as sufficient loin garments for the voyage. When the Queen realized how the royal household had again become expanded she could be heard laughing richly.
At last the ship was ready to cast off; all were aboard, goods were secured, camels placed together in a single stall with sufficient grain, leaves, and water to provide for them. As the tide began to turn the Captain began preparing the ship, and at last gave the signal to release the cables and begin raising certain of the sheets. The ship swung round on the current and was soon started on its journey home. Outside the harbor were three smaller, more maneuverable craft to serve as escort vessels; they took positions about the larger vessel and they were soon into the open sea where they set their course for the Mouths of the Sea.
The boy’s name was Asa; he was fourteen years of age; he had been son to Antipatha’s cousin. His father had been among the last of the victims of the Death Eater’s agents; his mother had died in childbirth a few months later. He truly had wished to go with the camels, tired of being just another boy among others his age in his cousin’s tents and markedly curious about other lands and ways of life.
“Cousin Antipatha was going to send Dava’amon, whose mother is a slave. He didn’t want to leave our tents, though, and I did. So I convinced him in the end to send me instead. I will train the camels, and teach folk how to ride them. I will be an important one instead of just one of the extra sons. I will be able to see other lands, other peoples. I do not wish to live only in the desert and the grasslands on the edge of the desert.” All were amazed when they heard his story told at their first meal aboard ship.
Several of the sailors aboard the ship were from Arnor and had sailed from Mithlond in the past on one or another of the few merchant ships of the Northern Dúnedain, and these tended to speak Adunaic amongst themselves. When they finally had a chance to sit down and relax after the ship was under way and the captain was satisfied the canvas raised so far was sufficient to take best advantage of the wind, four gathered to smoke their pipes near the bowsprit in an area they had unofficially claimed as their own, and were discussing the new passengers aboard the return cruise.
“The Prince of Harad himself and his family? Who would ever dream that the Farozi’s son and grandchildren would visit our lands?”
“It’s the priest I wonder about. Do all the priests down there perform blood sacrifices?”
A third one, a very young sailor, commented, “The black Man is the one who has me curious. Who gave him a Dúnedain sword? Do you think he can use it? He’s quite tall for one who is not of Dúnedain blood, isn’t he? See him over there by the bowsprit?”
He almost leapt off his coil of rope when the object of his curiosity answered him in Adunaic, “Yes, I can use my sword, and the King gave it into my hands, although it came from my own people. I am one of your cousins from South of Harad, and am indeed one of the Dúnedain myself. The smaller ships are more like the ships of our people in Camaloa on which I am accustomed to sail. I find this one quite marvelous. Do you fish from it as you sail?”
Lord Hildigor came forward then to find a quiet place to smoke his pipe, and found the sailors staring at Benai as if the bowsprit itself had begun to speak to them and tell them tales of life as a tree. “What is it?” the son of the Steward of Arnor asked in Adunaic. “You four look as if you were facing a barrow-wight.”
“I believe I have taken them by surprise, Lord Hildigor,” Benai explained, his eyes amused as he looked at the other four.
“He speaks Adunaic!” explained the youngest sailor, rather unnecessarily.
“And so?” asked Hildigor, realizing the source of the surprise and finding himself relishing it. “Shall not one of the descendants of Númenor speak the languages of our ancestors?”
“But, my Lord Hildigor....”
Benai laughed. “Our Lord Elessar himself was taken aback, although he does not question our story.” He quickly explained the coming of a ship which had fled the foundering of Númenor to the shores of the lands South and West of Harad, and they were impressed. He then told of how he’d been captured and enslaved, then freed by the Queen’s intervention.
“But how was the King able to give you a sword of your people?”
Benai shrugged. “It is believed by those of Harad that the Lady Elbereth, whom they call Neryet, is able to guide their actions, and that the sword was given to her and she in turn gave it into the King’s hands to give to me. It is a sword of my own people, and I once knew the one who bore it last.” He smiled. “And she gave into my hand the star he bore as a young Ranger, ere he came to Harad the first time, and he has given it into the keeping of the son of Ankhrabi.”
They looked to Hildigor, and saw that he confirmed it all. One of the elder ones shook his head in amazement. “Certainly the Valar have surrounded our Lord Aragorn with many blessings, although had he not striven as hard and long as he did they’d have been meaningless in the end.” The others indicated their agreement.
Within a day Benai was running up the rigging of the ship with the rest of the crew, and by the time they reached the Harlond the captain was begging him to come onto the ship as an officer, but he was shaking his head. “No, my lord Captain--I must return to my own people and their defense. I do thank you for the honor you have shown me. But I hope that this ship will bear me home again, and I will aid in its crew again on the voyage.”
When not working with the crew, Benai was often found keeping company with the oldest daughter of Lord Rustovrid. They spent much time on the starboard side of the main cabin where they spoke with increasing freedom as the young woman worked on teaching Benai both more Westron and Haradri. He proved an apt pupil, and she found herself learning Adunaic as well. Rustovrid watched with concern, but Lady Ghansaret seemed increasingly pleased as the relationship continued to blossom. “He is an honorable Man, and is distantly related to the King and counts himself one of his folk. He is already a leader among his people, and when he returns to them he will be even greater. To have ties to the folk of Camaloa will be good for us, for I believe his people will ally themselves with the Haradrim and our own folk in Far Harad, and this will aid to provide protection for our Southern borders.
“I will tell you this, my beloved,” she continued on to her husband, “I feared she would become enamored of one of the Northern Dúnedain instead, and thus would go far away from us and no longer consider herself as being of the Southlands any more. Should they marry, she will prove of great benefit to his people, and will help them to prosper and become at least equal in culture to ours. And in time the prestige of Harad and Far Harad will grow, and do so rightly.”
Lady Ankhsarani recognized the reason she had been sent on this voyage was to allow time for the speculations regarding her place in the affairs of Sherfiramun to die down, and she was grateful for her uncle’s thoughtfulness. But she felt somewhat set apart from the rest; most others were married, and she often heard those who’d come on the visit speaking of their wives and families, and the pleasure they anticipated when they were able to be reunited with them again. The business of setting aside her own marriage was proceeding, and she knew that by the time she returned it would be finished; but who in Harad would be likely to look to her as a possible wife? She was no girl, and due to her upbringing had no particular talent of skill or knowledge of politics to attract the attention of a lord who’d lost a first wife in childbirth or any other of the many reason women might die young. Captain Belerion was polite to her, recognizing her isolation and seeking to relieve it; and others of his officers and the two women aboard who cared for the order of the passenger cabins all treated her with courtesy and growing kindness, for which she found herself profoundly grateful. She was surprised at how quickly she was learning Westron, and even more surprised when she learned Captain Belerion was fluent in Haradri.
“I captained a merchant vessel when I was young,” he explained, “and we traded with certain towns on the north coast of Harad. Many of the fine woolens which your people have ever traded for in the coastal cities were carried there by my ships. I am part of the family of the Lord Halbaleg and Lady Gilraen, late mother to our Lord Aragorn. When he came to Harad as a young Man I was part of my father’s crew and sailed on the ship that brought him there and later away again. When he commissioned this ship he asked me to captain it, and I was glad to accept, and my own son Belemir captains the family trading ship we sailed on then. The Lady of Stars is a fine ship.”
The Lady Nefiramonrabi found their quarters on the Harthad uin Dún comfortable beyond her expectations. But she was most impressed that the bed prepared for herself and her husband bore a pair of particularly finely carved Haradri headrests for her husband and herself, and that the berths for her sons and daughter and the rest of the Haradri had all been similarly equipped, although there were also pillows and cushions set ready as well. That these would respect her people’s culture so was humbling, particularly as she now remembered with shame how she’d refused to take into account the customs of their guests in setting up the rooms for their usage in the Farozi’s house. Haradri eating utensils were ever at their places at the tables at which they ate as well. Apologies were made for the lack of room to allow the company to recline as was common among the nobility of Harad; but this sitting up to eat was quickly proving pleasurable for all, as more could eat at a single table and the conversations of others could be more easily followed. That she had ever considered the Northerners uncouth and uncivilized now made her face burn at the mere memory of the thought.
The King was attentive to all, although he spent much time working with Lord Berevrion and Prince Faramir in dealing with correspondence and business matters forwarded to the King’s attention. Each day one of the smaller ships that accompanied the King’s ship would be replaced by another sent from the capitol, bringing correspondence and dispatches and carrying the King’s orders and replies in return. The smaller ship would come alongside and a sealed and covered basket would be dropped to it bearing the outgoing dispatches and to receive the new ones; the ship it was replacing would then head off back to Gondor to carry that which it had received previously, or would go back on patrol for possible dangers in the waters which they sailed.
Each day he would check the wounds on Ma’osiri and Ankhrabi, often allowing his healing gift to be used to aid in their continued recovery; he also helped Ankhrabi to exercise his shoulder to return the full motion of it. Each morning early he would be on the deck, usually with Lord Hardorn, Benai, or Legolas, practicing with his sword and occasionally with long knife and dagger as well. He would also sit with the children on a hatch cover and tell them stories and sing with them, often holding one or more of the three youngest on his lap as he did so. Amon’osiri and Ma’osiri became regular participants in these gatherings, and would return telling of a game the King had taught them all or a story he’d told or a particularly funny or touching song he’d sung, and she was glad. All of the children were rapidly learning Westron, and used more and more words each day.
The small sculptor was often upon the deck, his cane held under his foot to prevent it from sliding with the ship’s roll and possibly going beyond the rail. He and Owain were still working on small figures, she found, and as he worked on them he would speak with her. She found her own store of Westron had improved over the King’s visit, and that while in Harad Master Ruvemir had also become able to communicate on a rudimentary level in Haradri. Now he’d speak with her and her daughter and husband at length, often telling the stories he’d heard about the journey the King had taken with the Ringbearer and the Fellowship from the borders of the Shire to Rivendell, South and then East and then South again to the boundaries between Rhovanion in Eastern Arnor and Gondor.
Each day their own guards were encouraged to practice their sparring, often on their own, occasionally sparring with one or another of the King’s party, and two who sparred with Captain Peregrin came away surprised at how swiftly the Hobbit had managed to disarm them. All of them were impressed with the skill of those from Gondor, Arnor and Rohan with their weapons before the voyage was through.
On their approach to the Mouths of the Sea where the delta of the River Anduin reached the Sundering Sea, in the distance ships from Umbar could be seen, although none made any attempt to approach them. The escort ships finally fell behind, screening the King’s vessel from possible Umbarian aggression as the Harthad uin Dún entered the river itself. A fresh wind from the Southwest sprang up as they reached the Anduin, steadily bearing them north toward Minas Anor.
During the day on the river Prince Faramir and Lady Lothiriel spent much time on deck describing the lands they passed, and one of the sailors who’d crewed the ship on which the Heir of Isildur had sailed from the Pelargir to Minas Tirith told of how the same lands had looked then, the signs of burning they’d seen from the ravages the Corsairs had made on the coastal cities, towns, and farmlands. They saw now a green land, rich and fertile; the cities were set well back from the river on hills where flooding could not bother them, although many of the farmlands were in the rich bottomlands of the floodplains; the harbors well designed and defended by small fortresses and batteries.
At last the ship approached the Harlond after a day and a night on the river, and all began to make certain their goods were properly stored in chests, trunks, and bags; children’s toys were retrieved from nests of cables by the sailors, young Asa saw to it his charges were ready to be brought out from the hold, cloaks were thrown over shoulders for it appeared a rain now followed them up the River from the Sea; and all prepared for the berthing. Cheerful insults were traded between the ship’s crew and their friends working the quayside along with the ends of cables and ropes being thrown and fastened.
“What will you do with the camels?” Ankhrabi asked his host as they stood together on the deck, waiting for the gangplank to be set into place.
“The Crown owns a large plot of land near the banks of the river South and West of Osgiliath. Some of it has been given over to the raising of grain, but part of it is too rocky to be cultivated. I think I will set up a place to keep the animals I’ve had given to me. We were given three does and a young buck of a variety of deer that lives in the Shire that the Thain did not wish to see slaughtered when their herds were thinned two years ago. They are already established in a wooded area of the property, protected by high fences. And the folk of Dale sent me a pair of the great hunting cats that live in their area, while the Beornings sent me an orphaned bear cub that had been wounded for me to treat--the Beornings have much love for bears. It might be instructive for the children of our people to have the ability to see such animals and learn of them that they develop an appreciation for the beasts with which we share this world.”
“A farm for game? My grandfather once tried to do much the same, but the animals were all killed when three of the Dark Ones came accompanied by trugdels, what you call orcs, and the Dark Ones ordered that the animals be given to their feeding.”
A wagon was arriving, as well as open carriages pulled by horses and a number of saddled horses and ponies. Two other ships were berthed there already, trading vessels whose names were familiar to Ankhrabi. And then he looked up and saw, beyond the quays and the fields of the Pelennor, where stood the city of Minas Anor on the knee of Mount Mindolluin, and he stopped even breathing in the wonder of it. Amon’osiri pushed up alongside his father on the left while Ma’osiri did the same on the right, and they, too, stood amazed as they looked for the first time on the City of the King.
Guards in black and silver stood in array; officials in costumes of many colors awaited them, and Ankhrabi noticed that out of a carriage was stepping a small woman who took a smaller boy handed out from the older Man who remained sitting in the carriage and set him on the ground, then reached to accept a young child into her arms before she turned to hurry onto the dock; seeing the delight showing in the eyes of Ruvemir he realized this must be his wife Elise and their children.
At last the plank was set into place and four stepped forward to greet them, two clothed in blue and silver, an older and a younger Man who resembled the King, Prince Faramir, and the Lady Lothiriel, tall and almost Elven fair, their faces proud and watchful at the same time they were good humored. Another was dressed in the grey and silver of Arnor, his face intelligent and thoughtful. Ankhrabi noted that this Man wore his sword reversed from the normal, and that he wore a glove on his right hand but not his left. The fourth was a young Man wearing the black and silver of the city, but his face was familiar somehow; it was as he saw the smile break out on Captain Beregond’s face that he realized this must be the Captain’s son Bergil. The King Elessar stepped off first and was greeted by these four, and the Rod of Stewardship was placed officially in the King’s hands. As Prince Faramir stepped off the ship and joined the waiting lords the King turned to him, delivering the Rod into his hands with a bow.
Now Ankhrabi and his party went ashore, Nefiramonrani’s arm on his, their sons and daughter following them, followed by their own servants and guards. The two in blue and silver turned to them and bowed deeply. “My Lord Prince, Princess, young Lords and Lady, we welcome you to Gondor and the city of Minas Anor,” the older Lord said respectfully. “I am Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, and this is my oldest son and heir, Elphir.”
The King now introduced the one in grey and silver. “Another of my kinsman, and fourth from the Line of Kings after myself and my children, Gilfileg son of Gilthor. And this is Bergil son of Beregond, liaison between the Guard of the Citadel and the White Company of Ithilien. Prince Ankhrabi, son of An’Sohrabi, Farozi of Harad; his wife Nefiramonrani, their daughter Nefirnerini, and sons Ma’osiri and Amon’osiri. Their cousin and chief of their guard of honor, Gebsohrabi. The Lady Ankhsarani, sister to Princess Nefiramonrani, and her attendants. Lord Ghants’pa’amon and his wife Lady Angarnerini and their attendants.”
They were led further down the quay until they had reached the line of carriages, horses and ponies, and then turned to watch the rest disembark.
The next off the ship was King of Rohan followed with wife and son, Envoy and guard of honor, and they were welcomed warmly by Prince Imrahil and Lord Elphir, who embraced Queen Lothiriel with joy. Elphir quickly scooped young Elfwine into his arms, then lifted him high into the air with the child giggling from sheer pleasure. As at last the Queen of Gondor and Princess of Ithilien came together across to the quay with their children, Lady Avrieth, Hasturnerini, Damrod and Benai, the Prince and his son all paused in surprise and deep astonishment as they looked on the one walking as guard to the Queen.
The King watched their reactions with a level of satisfaction at their discomfiture, Ankhrabi realized. “My Lords, we made a discovery while in Harad which took us all by surprise. May I present the one who has agreed to serve as guard of honor to my lady wife--Lord Benai of Camaloa, one of our kinsmen from those of the Dúnedain whose ship was forced to landfall on the Southern continent after the fall of Númenor. His tale is a complicated one, and how he came to join us will amuse and appall you, I think. However, it is better told when there is time to savor it and consider how we will assist him to deal with the dangers facing his own lands.
“And this is Mistress Hasturnerini, who is my lady wife’s apprentice--and that story also is better told later. And below, preparing his charges for disembarking is another child, the boy Asa, who has been given into my safekeeping for a time.”
“Charges, my lord Elessar?” asked the Prince.
Prince Faramir laughed. “You will not believe it, Uncle, but our King was given three young steeds just as we were readying to sail.”
Lord Elphir, Elfwine seated on his shoulder, asked, “And just how many horses do you need to make certain you are always mounted, my King?”
“Oh, they are not horses,” Aragorn said, grinning ruefully. “Do you remember me telling of the visit I made to the Batsi clan?”
“They are the ones, are they not, whose child you healed and who gave you a camel?”
“Yes. Lord An’Sohrabi had invited Antipatha of the Batsis to the dinner of welcome given on our arrival in Thetos.”
“He’s given you more camels?”
“Yes, three of them. All quite young, apparently only recently weaned.”
“And you could not decline them?”
“Not without having given far more offense than I would wish to offer such a one as he. He remembers how I healed him, and the relief of his parents and kinsmen as he quickly recovered. He was most insistent I accept them, and had prepared for all contingencies. He’d even ascertained that the ship could carry them as well as the food and the youth he sent to keep them over the voyage.”
The Prince was laughing and shaking his head as he turned to accept the salute of those of the King’s guard of honor that now were filing past him. Captain Peregrin was now apparently on duty, as he stood by now with drawn sword, his face calm but alert. Hildigor embraced Gilfileg with pleasure, and Berevrion saluted him with a smile on his face.
Another party was approaching the quay on horses, leading a number of spares, and Ankhrabi realized this group was from Harad and included Rustovrid’s lieutenant, Lord Amonpelrabi from Asual. Amonpelrabi and his folk dismounted and left two to serve as horseholders and came forward to greet those from Harad originally.
Ankhrabi was beginning to feel as if all were unreal, his senses more than slightly overwhelmed. The King was now looking at him with concern, and was leading him to the carriages. A single horse was pushing through the lines of carriages and waiting mounts, a great grey with no saddle or bridle. The King paused, smiled, and turned to greet it.
A groom came forward apologetically. “We had thought to bring Roheryn for you to ride, but Olórin would not be denied, my Lord.”
“So I see. My Lord Prince Ankhrabi, I wish to introduce you to one of my other steeds, Olórin of the Mearas, who has agreed to bear me when I have such need. His brother is now lord of Rohan’s horse herds.” As he watched the King of Gondor and Arnor bow before the great grey horse, he realized that there was more awareness in the eyes of the animal than he’d ever seen, and he realized he, too, was bowing with respect.
He and his family and Sa’Harpelamun were quickly ushered into one of the waiting carriages, and his guards were given horses to ride alongside the coach, three of the Guards of the Citadel riding before and behind it. The King was assisting his wife onto her horse, Princess Melian and young Prince Elfwine were already mounted on ponies, Master Ruvemir, surrounded by wife and children, was being aided into another coach by a taller Man, others were now in coaches or on horseback, and all were beginning to ride the road from the Pelennor to the gates of the city.
He found himself wondering what other wonders he would see before the day failed completely.