Ithilien, F.A. 25
A sign of great change, I thought, that I might stand in Ithilien this evening with a lord of the Haradrim at my side. A young man, Raksandhar, no more than one-and-twenty, with hair clipped short in our fashion and fluent Westron, lately become lord of all the land and water that lay around the crossing of the Harnen and the great South Road.
A sign, too, of the labours of my Steward in these lands that I had given him, that we were not outside, beneath the deepening sky, but in a chamber in his summer house, in the bay of an east-looking window. Raksandhar stood with his hands clasped behind him, admiring the pool and the great fall that lay beyond, both jewelled by late sunlight. Even at this distance, the roar of the water could be heard; a low and constant thrum.
Between us, in the curve of the window, was a low round table, and upon this lay a chess board. The pieces, so Faramir had told me once, had been a gift to him from his father; but they had come into his family in the wake of the victory at Poros against the Haradrim, in the days of the steward Túrin. They were ivory, with bright shards of stone sparkling in the eyes of the horses of the knights and crowning the kings and beading the rukhs, all of them glossy with the handling of a thousand campaigns. The present game was well underway.
Faramir rejoined us, bringing with him three glasses of fine crystal; and, as Raksandhar took with thanks the red wine that was being offered, his eye fell upon the board. “A fine set,” he said, leaning over it. “And the workmanship seems familiar to me.”
“Another example,” Faramir said, and our eyes caught as he handed me my glass, “of the tradition of commerce there has long been between our peoples.”
“May I ask which of you is losing?”
Faramir looked away from me, down at the board. “It alternates,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “He beats me playing white, and then he beats me playing black.”
Faramir began to laugh. Raksandhar looked up, uncertainly. “All men,” I explained, “need lessons in humility.”
He studied us both in turn, and then smiled, as if to show he shared our ease, but he seemed to me still stiff, still unsure, in his new part. “Is it not a great gift to us,” he said, echoing my earlier thoughts, “that we might stand here together this evening?” He turned to Faramir. “I must thank you, my lord Prince, for your welcome, and above all for the friendship you have shown me since first we met in my youth,” and here, smiling at my Steward, he was truly at his ease, “both of us buried deep amongst my father’s scrolls.”
“You are most welcome to Ithilien,” Faramir said, with great warmth. “Let this be yet another sign of the ever-deepening friendship between us. Between our people.”
“I am grateful to the Prince also,” Raksandhar went on, and now he was looking at me, “for giving me the chance to meet and speak to you, my lord – and to make my petition.”
I glanced towards Faramir, but his eyes were upon the young man yet, still warm and maybe now a little anxious. “Speak,” I said, and quieted my sigh. Raksandhar straightened himself; became more formal, even stiffer. Such a young man to be made lord of his land.
“As you know, my lord,” he said, “my lands lie two days’ journey south of Poros. Their heart is the crossing point, where the river meets the road.”
“I know your country,” I said. “I crossed the bridge of the Hah’n in your grandfather’s day, and saw the road snake on southwards through his great lands. I drank from the water there.”
“Then you will know, sir, that my people are merchants. The river and the road, our veins; the trade upon them, our blood. You know the route from the south, you say; but you know also, I think, how that route becomes harder as it heads north. How – when our vans come to Poros, or our ships to Pelargir – a little more of our blood is taken each year. How a little less comes home to us, in the south.”
Beside me, Faramir was now intent upon the board. As well he might be, for he had brought this matter before the council many times in recent years, and to no avail. Hard to ask lords who had suffered so long – lands scorched, people enslaved – to give back to their tormentors some of their new-found, hard-won wealth. Lebennin, Lamedon, the lands of the Ethir – free at last from fear, safe to prosper. Hard to ask; unjust, maybe, as well.
“I know this, my lord Raksandhar, and I regret,” I said, gently, but in truth, “that I must disappoint you. The lords of Gondor have debated this matter often, and on each occasion have concluded that the present state is both necessary and fair. As, no doubt,” and I glanced over the game, “the Prince will already have made clear.”
“I understand,” Raksandhar said, softly. “I understand.” He turned to look out of the window – still stiff – a frown gathering upon his brow as he fell into thought. And, as I watched, it seemed he came to some decision. “Sire – might I tell you... would you hear... something of my father?”
“Please, my lord.” I said as I drank, for it seemed a slight thing to grant him. “I would be glad to.”
He set his glass down upon the table, and drew his hands behind him once again, head at an angle as he spoke. Did he know, I wondered, this young man, of how he appeared before me now: as A’kahl – the trader, the teller of tales? Did it come to him instinctively? For all that he so carefully followed our fashion, so purely spoke our tongue, it came to me that it might be an error to forget that this was a man of the South, and not of the West.
“Before my birth,” Raksandhar said, “in the Dark War, which brought to an end many things, my father sailed with the fleet that you routed at Pelargir. He took five ships – they each bore a black standard with a red sun upon it. I shall not ask if you remember them – those days, my lord, are at an end. When I was a child, my father would speak of that battle, and he told me of an army of ghosts, with pale swords, an army that could not die. I cannot know if what he said was true, but I know that war brought many things to an end. There are no ghosts now: I cannot speak of an earlier time.”
In the distance, the waterfall pounded on. Faramir, I noticed, had withdrawn to his desk, and was busying himself with some papers there.
“When it was clear that the battle was lost, and in great terror, my father jumped overboard, and swam for the shore. He hid there, through the long night, watching the defeat. He was there when the ghost-army was dismissed and, in the way he told it to me, a great mist rose upon the river, and a fire crackled in the sky, and all the chains that bound the slaves to their oars burst open, and they were set free. When the red dawn came, he fled, coming in time back to our own land. A hard journey, I think, on foot, fearful both of what lay behind him, and what lay ahead. He never spoke of that.”
He paused, and I gestured that he should continue.
“After God the Giver of Gifts died, there followed a very dark time, when none could prosper. Better times did come at last, and I was born, and as I grew my father told me this tale – of the King who commanded the dead and whose fire broke iron. This above all he could not understand. ‘An army held to his will by witchcraft, and a fleet held by chains. What kind of man gives up all he has gathered to himself to hold against the darkness? What kind of lord gives up his slaves?’
“Today, again, it seems to me our blood runs thin. Men are talking once more of a dark time. They are poorer than they have been; they struggle. They hold what they have to themselves, and yet still they must trade. And so, more and more, new blood comes up from the south, for the chains of the docks and the galleys. Men and boys, starved and striped and empty-eyed, stolen from their lands and their waters far in the south. Dead men, they seem to me, and they do not last long. Like poison in our veins, I think – but what may I do? The men of Pelargir, of Poros, the tarkil – they have to be repaid.” He looked at the fine glass held within his fingers, turned it around.
“‘What kind of lord frees his slaves?’ It is not given to me to command an army of the dead, sir,” Raksandhar said, “but I do command the living. And if I could, I would be that kind of lord – whose gifts are given to free men, without the fear or threat of force. This, then, is my petition. This is the favour I ask you to grant. Let me be that kind of lord.”
He finished speaking, but did not meet my eye, merely bowed his head, and turned with his wine to look out once more of the window. Such a young man. Behind us, behind the house, in the west, the sun must now be setting, turning ruby red the clear crystal of the waterfall. And as I watched it seemed to me that those pure waters were somehow tainted now, with scarlet.
I heard a soft movement beside me. Faramir had returned. In his hand he held a slip of paper and, when he saw he had my attention, he put it down upon the table by the chess board, and slid it towards me.
Captain to king’s four, my Steward had written. Tonight, sire, you lose twice.
Written partly for the 4th birthday of the HA mailing list, but mostly for Raksha the Demon.