The Gift of Tongues
The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate. This story is written for pleasure not profit.
With thanks to Raksha
Fadil was much looking forward to going home. He had made a tidy profit on his travels, trading spices and silks for grain and wool. He would return to Harad with his camels laden. He was impatient to be on his way. He missed his three wives, twenty children, as well as all the comforts of home. He had seen enough trees and endless green expanses to last a lifetime, the manners of the west men were appalling and as for the climate; the least said about it the better.
He had stopped at this trading post in Umbar to water his camels and buy supplies for the homeward journey. He instructed his slave, Kedar, to tend to the camels and sought out an inn to quench his thirst. The tavern was a crowded one near the waterfront and Fadil found himself idly watching his fellow customers while he sipped his drink. The Corsairs were notable by their absence. He had heard that they had suffered grievous losses at the hands of the Gondorians. Fadil was not sorry; the sea raiders were a rowdy quarrelsome bunch, far too eager to draw their knives when something annoyed them as it all too frequently did.
He nodded a greeting to some merchants and local tradesmen. A group of his fellow Haradrim sat at a table in the corner playing dice. They looked like soldiers. He looked away, not desiring to draw attention to himself. Honour and glory were all very well, but men who lived by the sword usually died by it too. He hoped to die in his bed at a ripe old age.
His gaze was drawn to an exceptionally tall young fellow who sat in a corner drinking a mug of ale, his long legs spread out in front of him, as they would not fit comfortably beneath the table. His pale skin and grey eyes marked him out as most likely a tark. Fadil had little time for the arrogant Men of the West with their outlandish ways.
The room echoed with a babble of chatter in many different tongues. Fadil considered himself something of a scholar of languages, his ear being quick to catch the meanings of foreign words along the many roads he travelled.
He took another sip of his drink. It tasted good. Was there time to have another while Kedar saw to the camels? He would buy the lad a drink when he finished. He was a good worker.
A sudden loud thud from outside was audible over the chatter in the tavern followed by a scream of pain. The tall young fellow was the first to react. He dashed outside, followed at a more sedate pace by several of the soldiers. Fearful that some ill had befallen his camels, Fadil went outside too.
Kedar was lying in the courtyard, screaming in pain, his leg bent an unnatural angle. A man was trying to retrain an angry camel from kicking the young man on the ground. Fadil glanced towards where his own camels were tethered. They were all there, much to his relief. The tark knelt beside Kedar who screamed all the louder.
"What happened?" Fadil demanded.
Everyone started talking at once. Fadil turned and asked the man who was holding the irate camel, who was now being helped by the soldiers to restrain it. "I was watering my master's camels when this one broke loose," he admitted, looking rather frightened. "That fool," he gestured towards Kedar, "was in its path and got trampled. It's not my fault."
Fadil strode over to his slave and ordered, "Stop screaming and get up!"
The screams subsided to a dull whimper. Kedar replied, "I am sorry, honoured master, but I cannot. In a little while I will be well."
"I am a healer," interupted the tall man. "Is it not obvious to you that he is badly hurt?"
"How badly?" asked Fadil.
"I would need to examine him."
Fadil hesitated. He was far from eager to accept help from a tark who would doubtless make him pay through the nose for his services. Kedar cried out again in agony.
"Get on with it then!" the merchant snapped.
The healer reached out his hand towards Kedar's twisted leg. The slave started to scream again and plead for mercy.
"Could you tell him, please, that I am a healer and am trying to help him?" the tark asked Fadil. "I do not speak his language."
The merchant scowled at the thought of taking orders from a tark, but found himself doing as he was bidden. Kedar calmed somewhat, though his features were twisted with pain as the healer gently felt his injured leg.
"What ails him?" Fadil asked impatiently.
"His leg is broken and he could have hurts inside, but I would need to examine him properly to be sure," said the healer.
One of the soldiers, who was standing nearby, drew his dagger. "If you buy me a drink, honoured sir, I'll solve your problem and cut his throat for you."
Fadil hesitated. Kedar started to whimper again; this time in terror. He gazed pleadingly at his master.
"What use is a broken slave to you?" asked the soldier.
"None at all," said Fadil. He looked at the soldier, who stood poised to strike and then again at his helpless slave. Kedar had been with him since he was a child. The tark healer was glaring at the soldier's dagger, a challenging look in his keen grey eyes. Impulsively, Fadil turned to the healer who and asked him in the common tongue. "Can my slave be mended?"
"I cannot say yet," said the healer. "Maybe, I can but try."
"Very well, tark."
"My name is Belzager," the healer said with dignity.
Thoroughly out of sorts at the disruption to his journey, Fadil went back inside the inn and demanded a room for the night from the innkeeper. He was about to ask someone to carry his slave within, when Belzager appeared with Kedar in his arms. He must have had more strength than was obvious in his tall lean frame for he carried Kedar as if he weighed nothing.
The innkeeper showed them to what he claimed was his best room. Fadil was not impressed. The chamber was a fair size, but shabbily furnished with a moth eaten rug on the floor. As soon as the healer had Kedar settled on the bed, Fadil turned to leave.
"It is better that you stay," said Belzager. He rummaged in his pack and took out a phial.
"I have no knowledge of healing arts," said Fadil. "I shall leave while you tend my slave."
"I shall need assistance. Someone will have to hold him down while I set his leg."
"I will ask the innkeeper to send one of his servants to help you."
"He cannot understand a word I am saying and he needs someone he trusts to reassure him. Ask if a servant can bring some hot water, though." There was an edge of authority in the healer's voice. Fadil wanted to protest. He had no desire to remain. He was a wealthy merchant, not a nursemaid who obeyed a tark's orders! Then if truth be told, he had no wish to witness Kedar's inevitable pain when his leg was set.
"He will appreciate your presence." This time the aura of command in Belzager's voice was unmistakable. It would take a far braver man than Fadil to defy him. Reluctantly, he took his place at the bedside. Kedar lay there looking at them both with an expression of pain and fear in his eyes.
"Tell Kedar that I will give him poppy juice to ease his pain and then I need to examine him properly," said Belzager. "It would help if you held his hand," he added.
Fadil did as he was bidden.
Later that day, Kadar lay tossing in an uneasy sleep. Fadil sat collapsed in a chair beside the bed, trying without much success to blot out his recollections of the past hours. The healer was calmly washing his hands in a fresh bowl of water that Fadil had asked the innkeeper to bring.
"Will my slave recover?" Fadil asked.
"He should do," Belzager replied. "He has two broken ribs, but I can detect no mortal hurts within. He might walk with a limp in the future, but his leg will heal."
"And the treatment, Master Belzager?"
"I can continue to give him something for the pain, but above all, he needs rest. With a crutch he should be able to get out of bed tomorrow to walk as far as the privy, but no further."
"What about travelling? I am on my way home to Harad. I cannot tarry here as the other caravans will depart before the hot season and we need to travel together for safety."
"It is out of the question for him to travel for several weeks or more, other than very short distances. It is no good glaring at me like that, master merchant. I am a healer of some experience, but I am not a sorcerer."
Fadil glared at the healer again then stomped downstairs to speak to the innkeeper. When he returned he said, "I must have lost my wits, but I have paid for his board and lodging until I return. He can help earn his keep by washing dishes or sweeping floors when he is well enough." The merchant glanced towards the bed wondering whatever had come over him to spend so much money on a damaged slave. To buy another would be far cheaper. Kedar was a good lad, though, hard- working and with a head for figures. He could always work at the merchant's counting house if he remained crippled.
"Good," said the healer. "You made the right decision."
"I must be getting soft headed in my old age," Fadil snorted. "Kedar's problems might be solved, but what of mine? I cannot travel back to Harad on my own. Yes, I could buy another slave at the market, but one does not trust an untested slave with valuable merchandise. He could wait until we get to some lonely place and slit my throat while I sleep. Well enough of my problems, Master Belzager, you will want your fee." The merchant rummaged in the pouch he kept hanging from his waist.
Belzager raised a hand to stay him. "I would as a favour instead, Master ?
"My name is Fadil son of Iyas. What is it that you want, tark? My coin is good."
"I doubt it not, Master Fadil, but I would instead ask you to take me with you to Harad."
"But why? Surely there is plenty of work for a healer in Umbar?"
"There is all too much, but I have a desire to see more of the world before I grow old. I would visit the East, but I speak nothing of their language. I hoped that in exchange for my labour, and food on the journey, you might teach me the tongue of the Men of Harad. You speak the common tongue fluently as well as your own."
Fadil eyed the healer doubtfully. He was slender as a reed. Would he be strong enough for the labour? Yet he had carried Kedar as easily as if he were a child.
"I am stronger than I look," said Belzager, as if reading his thoughts.
"Can you handle a camel?" asked the merchant.
"I do not know, but I can try."
"You are a strange one indeed, Master Belzager. Why should I take a tark with me? What healer wants to tend camels? I wager there is something you are not telling me."
Belzager regarded the merchant with clear grey eyes. For a moment, there was silence. Then he said. "You judge men well, Master Fadil. In truth, I love a lady whose hand I have little hope of winning and I have recently had to part company with a dear friend."
Fadil laughed. "I understand now! You seek to make your fortune. Your beloved's father set too high a bride price for a healer to meet?"
"You could say that."
"Well, a man might make a fortune trading along the Harad Road. No matter how many camels you need to offer for your lady, if you work hard enough, you will get them in good time!"
"You will take me with you then?" Belzager asked eagerly.
Fadil grunted. "I would prefer not to, but rather a tark than some untried slave. It is written. Only a fool crosses the desert with a knave. I will get you some suitable clothing on the morrow."
"What is wrong with my garb?"
"You would burn during the day and freeze during the night in what you are wearing now. You need travelling robes. But enough talk, let us snatch what sleep we might."
The healer's predictions proved correct and the next day Kedar seemed much improved and was able to hobble out of bed with a crutch. Fadil informed the slave of his decision. Kedar's eyes filled with tears.
"Don't make me regret it," Fadil said gruffly. "I expect you to be waiting for me here when I return."
Fadil took Belzager to a fellow merchant who provided him with several layers of loose robes and close fitting linen breaches to wear beneath them that tied at both the waist and ankles to keep out the sand. His new servant regarded the attire dubiously, but donned it as soon as he was bidden to.
"Do you speak any tongues other than common?" Fadil asked the healer as they prepared to set out.
"Several," Belzager replied. "As a healer, I must communicate with my patients. That is why I am so anxious to learn the tongue of Harad."
"Strange you have not troubled to try to learn it before then," said Fadil.
"Most of the warriors from Harad would rather fall on their swords than seek a healer's aid."
"The merchants would not, though."
"The merchants speak the common tongue in order to trade."
"We have to, as our tongue is impossible for most outsiders to learn," said Fadil.
"I shall master it," said Belzager.
"We shall see." Fadil gave a grim smile.
They set out at dawn the next day upon the Harad Road as part of a much larger and well-guarded caravan. Fadil could scarcely disguise his mirth at the sight of his travelling companion perched unsteadily atop a camel. Belzager was obviously experiencing considerable discomfort, but the healer simply clenched his teeth and grimaced.
After a few hours, the caravan came to a halt. Belzager slid awkwardly from the camel's back. Before he could tether the beast, it ambled down the road. Belzager gave chase, showing himself to be surprisingly swift footed. When he grabbed the camel's halter, the beast spat at him. Fadil would not forget his expression of surprise and disgust for a long time to come.
When they made camp for the night, Fadil began Belzager's lessons. " Elaborate greetings are most important to the men of Harad," he explained. "We are polite, unlike you tarks."
"We have good manners!" Belzager protested indignantly. "And you do not speak like that!"
"You simply say good day, we call down blessings upon the one we greet. Greetings, friend, may the sun never burn you and the spirits of your ancestors dwell in the celestial oasis, is how we might greet each other in the common speech of Harad. When in Umbar, I follow your custom, but soon we will be in Harad."
"That sounds much too flowery to be sincere," said Belzager. He stretched out his long legs and shifted to a more comfortable position."
"To us, it is simply good manners," said Fadil. "Or we might use a less elaborate greeting in the desert such as, Greetings, fellow traveller, where might water be found? Now repeat it after me." He repeated the phrase in his own tongue.
Belzager did as he was bidden.
Fadil burst out laughing.
"What is so funny?" asked Belzager somewhat indignantly. It appeared he was unaccustomed to being laughed at.
"It would not be funny if you spoke to a stranger thus. They would most likely run you through for insulting them thus! You have the inflections wrong. You have just said, Be gone, you louse, I am a fountain!"
Belzager tried again.
Fadil rolled his eyes. "That was even worse. You just said, Greetings, fiend, may the sun burn you and the spirits of your ancestors dwell in the camel's hump! Now try again."
Belzager tried and continued to try until the merchant was satisfied. Day after day and night after night, they continued thus.
The sun grew hotter and the journey more arduous, but Belzager made no complaint, though he was obvious to Fadil that his companion found the heat hard to endure from the way he mopped his brow and took frequent swigs from his water skin.. Gradually Belzager's command of the common tongue of Harad grew, as did his skill in handling camels. Rather to his surprise, Fadil grew quite fond of the tark. It was obvious the fellow was more accustomed to giving orders than obeying them, which he supposed was natural enough for a healer, but he was a hard worker and indeed much stronger than he looked. His appearance had changed during their long journey and Belzager's skin was now so bronzed that, he could easily pass for a man of Harad with a tark mother. He had hardly spoken to any on the journey save Fadil, though.
Fadil was hopeful of reaching his home within a few days when they stopped at an oasis to water the camels and replenish their water supplies. Many travellers were gathered there; merchants like Fadil and troops of soldiers in their scarlet robes. One of them approached Belzager, hand on scimitar and asked him a question.
The merchant held his breath. The warriors were notorious for their short tempers. Rumour had it that the Lord of Gifts had them partake of a draught that increased their aggression. Fadil knew only it was wise to keep one's distance. He found he was holding his breath.
Belzager replied perfectly in the common tongue of Harad and the warrior walked away.
"What did he want?" Fadil enquired.
"He desired to know if we had supplies of poppy seed with us. I told him we carried only wool and grain."
"You did well," said Fadil.
"I shall miss your teaching when we reach our destination," said Belzager.
"You can stay and work for me for a while if you wish," Fadil offered impulsively. "You still have a great deal to learn and I am short of a body servant while Kedar recovers."
"I am no man's slave," said Belzager. "As long as you recall that, I am happy to accept your offer."
"That is settled then," said Fadil, holding out his hand to Belzager. "Few tarks would strive to learn our language as you have done these past weeks. If you continue to work hard you will soon earn enough to purchase sufficient camels to pay the bride price for the woman you crave, my friend."
"Maybe." Belzager smiled sadly. He reached out and clasped the merchant's outstretched hand in friendship.
A/n This story was written for the Teitho "Languages" challenge where it was placed first. It is a prequel to "Tongues of Men and Angels" also on this site.