Aragorn finds an unlooked-for truths in the harshest place in Middle-Earth
February, T.A. 2980
“Why have we halted?”
Aragorn raises a hand to shield his eyes and peers curiously ahead. An endless file of dark, ungainly shapes recedes into the distance, near black against the striated, ice-like white. Away to the north, dark rose and violet blue, mountains of Shadow loom; inviting, oddly, against the dawn’s hazy golden glow, although he knows in flesh and sinew, how much a mirage that is.
They should not have stopped. It is not yet the first tea break and Anor’s blaze has just begun to climb. Under the cool of morning air they walk--conserving their mounts’ energy while the world is coming gently still awake.
He sighs, and beside him the animals move restively, shrugging their shaggy bulks, unhappy with the change. The great, humped-back beast in front grunts low in protest, for this early without motion there is no wind and the stinging flies are merciless. Each camel is tied snout to tail, the rough hemp rope stops the bulk of each file from twitching the ever-present torture away and he feels for their plight. Like ships upon the sand, at anchor they are vulnerable.
He steps farther out from the line and looks again. A dozen men gesticulate at a dark shape upon the ground and shrug with the elaborate resignation of long practise, bend over the poor stricken creature who has gone down. It lies, twitching and miserable, maggots laid in its lips, unable to drink and soon to die. Behind it, a second has the bulbous, thick-lipped look that tells of a similar, destined fate.
“What will they do?” he asks, looking askance at his companion. Herut, dark of hair and narrow-faced, dark-skinned, is quite unperturbed. The older man merely sighs, gathers up his staff in both lean hands, leans heavily for a moment. He is no longer young but trusts no other to guard his caravan. After a moment’s thought and silent pursing of lips, he nods and tosses the end of his shawl across his shoulder.
Ahead a flash of blue-streaked steel winks under the rising sun.
“And so the cycle begins again,“ the Haradrim murmurs, grave eyes narrowed, one hand raising absently to pat at his beast. She is gravid, but seemingly undistressed.
“Amilaki grant it be a male.”
Amilaki. God. The One.
Aragorn watches the nearest men mutter, nod their swathed heads, and touch their lips. He is not expected to make obeisance (for how could one weak and pale believe?), and so he steps back in line, sets one hand on the green braid that passes for a halter and rests his shoulder against the empty leather of the stirrup. Surely there is a little shade in the lee of his camel’s hump. There are hours of walking yet, and by the time they stop again the sky will be blue and hard, merciless above the torpid air.
Winter. This is winter.
A word in Sarma’s market and Aragorn has come so far that he cannot quite believe it is yet Narvinyë, let alone the time of faint new sun. Haradwaith is hot, always, but these forgotten sands are hotter still. Before mid-day the horizon will shimmer wildly. Sweat will run down his nape and ribs, pool in the low of his back until he yearns for Bruinen’s icy flood or the sharp sting of snowballs taken in the face. The kefiyah at last makes sense. Dust. Sun. And sand. All three torment and are held at bay by the long sheet of cloth.
He wipes grit from the corner of his eyes and thinks longingly of his Ranger kit tightly bundled onto the camel’s back.
He has done this to himself.
For reasons that seemed right a month ago.
“Gold lies upon the ground.”
Rumours of splendour whispered with hushed excitement around the marbled baths (he does succumb to luxury at need), have piqued his curiosity. Was that the lure? Did greed make the Men of Far Harad cleave to the new ‘god’? Mount Doom spreads her ash far and wide again, and the Yachay, the Haradi people of this endless plain at Ephel Dúath’s shadowed slopes, are the first to follow.
‘Geta Isati’ The Lord of Fire.A most demanding ruler who asks unquestioning obedience. And tribute. Gathered by the shaven priests and laid in the temples against…? What enemy? Sent where?
Aragorn shudders once. He suspects he knows.
Herut, always shrewd and observant, catches the bare quirk of a frown and so the Dunadan (uselessly and for cover) bends to check the tightness of the girth.
His camel grunts. One must punch them, hard, to get them to let go their hastily hoarded air.
“Not far now.”
The trader’s Sindarin is no better than Aragorn’s Haradi and so they speak the common tongue. A truce. In favour of avoiding complications. “I am not tired.”
Herut’s wry smile creases to a full on teasing grin. “I hope you rested sometime before danah..”
Danah. A Yachay word for that blessed time of brief half-light before dawn. Cool. Calm. When everything is possible before the heavy heat of the day saps one’s will.
There is no exact equivalent concept in Sindarin that he knows. Nor for ‘Rimit”.
The practise of sharing one’s wife with an honoured guest.
Thank you foster-father for my trading face. Aragorninclines his head and chooses not to elaborate the true events now rolled into the gauzy white of a nomad’s tent.
The eve before he had been presented with the choicest cut of liver. Watched it sliced from the fresh killed carcass of a lamb by a knife bound in saffron yellow and curved like a woman’s breast. Took the glistening meat from the dainty fingers of a dark- eyed girl dressed in orchid and red and gold-- her sable hair roped in golden beads that sang as she bent and smiled.
Shyly, but not too shy.
Later, smiling awkwardly across cups of lethally fermented milk, he had looked upon the duskiness of her throat and hoped that his actions (or lack thereof) would be taken as a small, but explicable, cultural misunderstanding.
It was normally direst insult to refuse a gift.
Eventually, she fell asleep. Aragorn, awake and longing to be elsewhen, had pulled the silken coverlet across her shoulder and dared not brush the glossy strand that fell careless across her cheek. Rolled as far to the edge of the thick piled carpet as he could, and wrapped himself in his discarded cloak. What would his Undomiel make of this predicament? She would be amused, he decides. Amused and interested to see how he had wriggled free.
Herut, now making the correctly incorrect assumption, laughs and lets go one hand upon his staff to clap Aragorn on the back. “Zenaya is young. Comely and obedient,“ he announces with pointed pride, although she is not his wife—those three are safe and cool back in Sarma’s elegant sandstone courtyards. The Yachay headman has chosen to honour his foreign friend. This pleases Herut no end. “If you desire her Basten will gift her to you. She would make an admirable wife. ”
Aragorn, flushed and flustered, is mysteriously taken by a coughing fit. The old trader pounds him, heartily between the shoulder blades, surprisingly strong and wiry for all his years.
It is all that the Dunadan can do to carefully school his face.
He remembers eyes grey as a cloudless night that have seen the newness of the Age. Admirable. And obedient. Valar, no. Carefully, he clears his throat. “Amese, accept my thanks but I am a new betrothed.”
This does not seemingly bother Herut at all. “Salem! Such good fortune. She is very beautiful?”
“As the fairest of the evening stars.”
A pair of bushy brows rise in pleased surprise. “And you have left this jewel so very soon?! My friend, you are indeed one to accept hardship and privation.”
If he only knew. The urge to speak, however obliquely, bubbles up like a forest spring. “Her father has yet to give his blessing to the match.“
“Ahhh!” This particular complication is understood within his blood. Herut sadly shakes his head; slow, then slower, shifts his keffiyah, pondering the root of this small tragedy.
It is not meet that a grown man who wears a sword should go without the softness of a wife.
“And thus you are here to seek to enrich your fortune! Now do I understand your haste. No father will let his precious flower go to a house without a roof.“
A house without a roof. To a Haradim this means the worst of all states to be in. The sun is strong and cruel, and the Dragon trees are few and far between. They rise, here and there upon the plain, in stalks launched out of the thin anemic earth, twisting like a seaman’s rope before bushing out again. Crowned by grey’d green leaves so stiff they could be used to sweep a stone flagged hall. For a moment, Aragorn finds himself taken by the need for home. The farthest of the forest flets within the riven dell have only leaves of Lebrethon to shield them. An entirely, vitally different green; one not muted and sapped of life by sun. It will be months (years?) before he sees their like again.
‘Yet with your hope I will hope.’
“My aim is high but I will, with labour, show my worth,” he says at last, breathing deep of dusty air, fingering the knuckle where had rested the ring of Barahir. Herut seems satisfied with this excuse for his urgent journey and so he shakes down the long loose sleeves of his travel robe and takes up his place, hand on the halter rope. A chorus of whistles cascade down the line and the animals begin their long slow plod. “Hidi. Hidi.” The drovers, armed with loose, slender switches, thwack the slower beasts on their shaggy flanks—he finds it entirely incongruous that they should grow a winter coat but the long nights are clear and cool. Land of contrast. Lakes amidst a sea of sand. Light and shadow. Warm welcome and wary gaze.
Another handler walks languidly in the rising heat, staff across his shoulders, swaying a little as his sandaled feet find hollows in the lakebed’s mud/salt crust. He has rheumy eyes, pale blue in darker skin, hair when unbound grey streaked. Older than Aragorn appears to be, but almost certainly not truly so.
“The wadi is cruel.” is all that Herut says, following the direction of his gaze before they begin again.
Anor slowly climbs. Below the camels’ muddy hocks the desiccated lake’s skim of precious wet grabs at her glow, burnishes the flats to a ruddy gold, thirsty too for the newness of the day. The water reflects back the few puffs of white-grey cloud kneeling on the horizon’s edge, teasing and tempting. It will not rain now for many months. The Yachay walk with purpose. In the brief summer storms, the fine clay below the crust becomes a mire; makes the trek impossible and so they do this journey, arduous and long, sometimes cruel, twenty times in the hard pack and ‘cooler’ sun of winter.
It is, Aragorn thinks, as far in league and thought as one can wander from the soft green shores of Cuiviénen.
I have come so far.
Most days his bones tell him this for a little bit, when he first rises out of the thin bedroll, aching with months of toil. In the eve it is his eyes—the stars are strange and disconcerting and below the dome of night there is only flat and sand. Once in a while it is his heart that speaks. There is a gift for Arwen wrapped tightly in his saddle-bag. A starfish. Plucked from the far shore beyond Umbar and blue like the beads of lapis that adorn the women of the market.
He hopes it is something she has never seen.
At Herut’s quiet word, he picks up his step. He was lagging and his placid gelding slowed down to pace beside. Shamal. Thorongil. Estel. Another land, another name. Almost a yearsince he had turned his face towards the mountains now looming north. This time he is a merchant. Among the tribes commerce opens doors, brings a wary acceptance, if one deals as straight as one’s given word.
‘In Yachay gold lies upon the ground.’ So much, it is said, that a man can make all his worth.
The wind, now rising, whips the thin sheen of impossibly brackish wet into ripples over white. Aragorn tastes sea, covers his face with one end of white-rimed cloth. The world is flat and endless. There is no life but the trail of dark humps and Men.
Doubt makes his brows furrow and grey eyes sting. “There is gold out here?” To the east a low hump, dark as deepest amethyst, broods on the horizon. Herut has to think upon the word. ‘Volcano.’ Not so ominous as other crueler mountains but still foreign to his eye.
They leave the wet behind. Mud lies dried, hard and sharp; crinkled up into pale tan dragon-scales. Narrow ridges such as he has seen in ice, dusted white-as if improbably by snow, run away from their track. If there is a track. Herut explains they never take the exact trail twice. Edges can be unstable; crust breaks easily and he has seen a man, terrified, yelping imprecations to his god, go down hip deep. It took three men to pull him up. “Whole caravans have been engulfed,“ he notes, with hurried hand gestures against bad luck.
The horizon, all haze and endless white, is indistinct. The rope sways. Aragorn keeps closer to the track.
For hours the darkest sight has been their shadows upon the ground, a flash of skin below a cloth, or the tan of camel fur-- just the shade blend in heated muddy shadows, but now as they pass some small dark hillocks of darkened mud, a new sight assaults the eyes.
Terraces of liquid rock, the height of a man, baked tan and clay brown on top, rise like islands out of the sea white. Bright ochre. Sulphur yellow. An odd green like summer’s heated shallow pool. Colours of a fevered dream; all graced with sprays of lace-like sparkling sinter.
He pulls a canteen from behind the saddle’s seat, takes a careful swig of warm but blessed wet to clear his heated brain, but the image stays.
What is it? This is no spring or oasis such as they have clung to, like limpets as the tide recedes. There is much chattering and excited whistling. “Holy, holy.” The men’s word rises high like the spires of coarse, coloured druse. A fumarole? Aragorn has seen these, stained by iron and raw sulphur on a far, far blacker mountain but he sees little steam. Only bubbles breaking through little pools of wet.
A sense of uneasiness begins to squeeze in his chest. It is more than thirty leagues as a crow flies to the sea of Núrnen. What lies below? Could the Dark One, even here, be delving and marring Aule’s works? Making something evil look so beautiful?
A tall, turbaned man with a grey wisp of beard runs up a low mound of orange-red and stretches out his arms: king of the hill until another, gold-tooth flashing, pulls him off. It is the tallest spot around. The younger men, childlike, walk a river of yellow stain that is strewn across pools of yellow-green and mud as if an ink pot has upended.
“Shamal, go on. It is good luck,“ Herut nods toward the spires. His voice is sibilant next to harsher dialect of Yachay but the insistent, gesticulating men drag at his hands, needing no translation. Shamal, his name to the local people: North. Not wise perhaps, but a reminder of his home.
He follows. Very, very carefully. The ground firm below his boots, no warmer than the burning sands of Khand. He walks the trail, smiles, almost delighted, following its twists and turns but noticing the knife at the belt of the man afore. It is yellow with a slash of red. Yachay, but not Sarma’s sect. A disciple of Geta Isati. These people have a Sultan. And rivalries. Their own battle songs, and rules about cutting hair. (No woman may do so. It is said to make them weak). They leave their dead to burn on pyres, following the old gods. Cruel and pitiless. Gingerly he steps off the saffron heat, looks across the stark white expanse and thinks: but no more pitiless than their world. Before the Lord of Fire. Before Morgoth.
They walk again in stinging, salt-tinged wind and burning heat. Before mid-afternoon they reach the end at last. Even the camels picked up their steady pace, like a horse scenting hay of the barn. “Tewe!” is the word passed quickly down the line and the animals set down, row on row, upon the vast, endless, snow white plain. Herut, with skill, coaxes his cow to kneel, front first and slowly back, to land with a gentle huff of protest but Aragorn has to pull on his gelled bull with force. The animal gives out a loud long moan: the ground is hot, but at least it does not move.
Around them it all is still white but is not all the same. Bands of white and paler clear, milky or true crystal run away in shallow rings, each with a different property. The outer edge just passed is hard and indissoluble: the inner one is softer, crusted.
A thirsty cow licks once at the ground.
‘Ch’ewi’. Yachay for salt. Puzzled, but willing his eagerness to wait, “What do you call this place?” he asks, long arm reaching across to undo the straps that bind his leather satchel to the camel’s back. His stomach growls. Over beside a cluster of pale round tents a woman, her hair bound not in golden coins but a ragged scarf, is already making tea. Her waist sash is green, for luck, because her husband (for all his little wealth) loves her so.
A darker-faced man, one of Herut’s head drovers who thinks well of his desire to learn more, grabs hold of his sleeve and tugs firmly the other way. “Werik’i , Werik’I. Gold, gold.“ The man bows and gestures toward clusters of square grey-white blocks. Aragorn forgets his hunger and follows him through the haphazard towers to stand, open mouthed, at the sight beyond.
Herut stops at his shoulder, smiling broadly. His teeth are very white against the dark tan of his skin. “Isati meb ch’ewi”
Land of salt and fire.
Truly, just as much and as little the words.
White gold. Of course.
Sarma and salt. This was the beginning of the salt road; the central point from which all else flowed. Spice. Swords. And slaves. In every shaded central market across Khand’s sand and Umbar’s jungle coast salt was the root currency. Preservative. Vital to life. Added to their burnt animal sacrifices, revered for it and collected at such cost and hardship.
And hoarded. ‘Ch’ewi beteminsi’ ---salt of the palace. Given out by their Sultans in times of need.
And now by the shaven priests.
His mind’s eye sees a map of routes and temples that spring up fast as helianthum under the summer rains. At first Aragorn is so shocked and troubled he does not catch the offer. A pale-robed man clad, crowned by a dust-coloured keffiyah, scrabbles in the dirt, searching for a piece. There are bitter salts amongst the sweet. He lifts an oblong block and licks it, makes a face, tossing the chunk away.
“Ni t’iru” ‘No good’ this means and then he walks until they are close to a working pile. Men dressed in half sheets to cover just their chest and thighs, bend and rise, cutting into the plain with roughened adzes. Tablets of creamy white lie in spires beside the waiting camels and they watch as an improbable tier of heavy block is strapped across one’s one loudly grumbling animal’s back.
“He will stop when it is becomes too much.”
Aragorn turns to look at his friend’s lined face. “The handler?”
“No, “ Herut chuckles low. “The camel.”
That night, over a fire made of twisted, desiccated wood, Aragorn sips his sweet, scalding tea, and listens as Herut translates the headman’s heavily accented Haradi. “The work is hard. No song. Breath we save. Sun saps at strength and need every to ounce swing,” in answer to Aragorn’s careful query. He has noticed that most men around the edge of the fire’s glow sport little bits of red. Twisted into bands on wrists or feet, some wound with golden coins. It is the fire that marks them as Geta’s true disciples.
The man stops, shrugs his shoulders and retightens his keffiyah, points to a few of younger ones.
His words rise at the end, like a bright blue and orange roller catching the rising wind.
“What does he say?“
Herut rubs his temple, uncomfortable with awkward truths. “That it was a good life once. Gold on their doorstep, enough to raise their children, but now the young ones go far away.“
Many lined faces nod in the firelight. This is true, but sorrowful. Men, no longer lost to the hard shifting wadi are lost to an easier way of life.
“Samitīm amilaki“ The old storyteller’s raises his hands toward the ink-blackness of the sky. His eyes shine with a fervent light. There are scars on his legs and arms from breaking through the crusted salt. A longer stream of words passes from between his roughened lips.
Herut shrugs and looks back to Aragorn. “His father and his father’s father also mined the salt but his son has chosen a different path. The Lord of Fire offers gold and status to all who follow with their swords. The Land is hard and young men grow lazy. They do not wish to mine like us. It is the way of things. A son does not always follow his father’s footsteps.”
Back beyond the dim velvet night lies a geyser, an island astride the vast salt plain. Grown, some say, at Geta Isati’s pleasure. Aragorn thinks of all the lands that he has trod, how tracks and trees have changed, and knows that Arda is not fixed. The Eldar celebrate the seasons but also the seasons of a place. All shapes and shifts below Men’s very feet and ways of life must change.
Aragorn nods. “You are wise grandfather.” This is true but does nothing to dispel the sense of urgency that builds within his chest. What does the Lord of Fire promise these people but to stop? To rest. Be taken care of. And endless salt.
He finishes his tea in silence, watching another Zenaya dance.
Days under Anor’s shimmering pass so quickly Herut has little time to speak for long. Aragorn explores, takes his turn with heavy adze, adds blisters that sting below his gloves. His skill as a healer quickly spreads and he is kept so busy with the myriad minor hurts that he is surprised when the last day of loading comes.
He finds he cannot help himself.
Reaching back to into a smaller pack lashed across his bull’s fleshy musky hump, he extricates his own small supply. Wrapped in oilcloth. The salt, a gift of Dain Ironfoot, has lasted him for many months.
“Here.” The red-bearded King under Mountain has just thrown a chunk of salt into his hands. It is palest pink, like a shell of conch once seen Belfalas’ southern shore.
“Folks don’t like it,” the dwarf explains, shaking his heavy head. “Too funny coloured and we hit a lode. Drop it for the deer to lick as you travel through the woods.”
Blessed Valar. Transported to a world of green leaves and often gelid air, he takes a second to hear the sound, just barely holds back the blow as Herut takes him by the arm.
“What have you…?” The trader begins, but then all at once he is down upon his knees.
Herut prostrates himself before the startled Dunadan. “Shamal, I apologize. I apologize.”
“For what?” Aragorn looks on the rich blue robe, embarrassed and somewhat ill at ease. Has he done something wrong? “Get up my friend, there is nothing that lies between us.“
The word Isati, slips quietly out. Ever shrewd, Herut is learning to consider new and helpful things. “I believed that you lied, my lord.”
“Lied?!” Aragorn’s dark eyebrows shoot straight up.
“When you said that you were a Chieftan,” Herut explains, colour high and almost grovelling, eyes still dark with worry. “You had no wealth. Your clothes are rough. You have no fine rings. No sword of note. How could such a one be a man of influence? Again, I beg apology. “
Aragorn stands, mouth agape, looking down a moment.
He has comes so far. Salt and slaves. And a building heresy.
After a moment he closes the box of sweet pink crystal with a snap that makes the Haradi jump.
It is true. He has indeed little enough of wealth, even back in Rivendell. Some clothes. Some books. A ring, although that rests with her.
And a badly broken sword.
He wants to laugh. The most precious thing he would ever gain was not yet even his.
Herut rises up, slow and warily. Shaking his head, brushing mud and dust and bitter white crystals from his hem. “Your land. So rich!! Sweet pink salt. Pure and never bitter. Truly you are blessed.”
He is trying still to make amends but Aragorn has not passed the first, more awkward revelation. “You believed I lied? Then why did you take me?”
Dark eyes widen and the man bows his head again. “Honoured Shamal. A pardon for my words. Indri, my wisest and eldest wife, says sometimes it is useful to be blunt.”
He presses hand to chest and mouth and looks up from below deep blue cloth--
“Because you seemed crazed enough to try it on your own.
And I believe all men’s blood have worth…”
At dusk, when the last of the patient ships have fallen silent, quiet under their heavy loads, the caravan sets off again, walking west, towards the sunset.
The sky is gilded by a honeyed haze. It falls in waves of rose-gold and pink to rest upon the indigo shoulders of the hills.
The trader and the wanderer walk silently, each lost to their thoughts. Below their feet the wet flats with their seams of clay are as mirror crack’d; pink and gold, limned by the sky, marred by the salt’s briny lace.
One, the elder, will within a span of years will make a choice and lay down his life to stop the turn of a red and flowing tide.
The other, young in limb but with the wisdom of the Elder race, has seen enough. He will move on, fight other battles across long years of solitude.
That night, after sharing a sharp, spiced curry made of camel meat, Aragorn will take his leave, turn his steps back toward the north and the destiny that calls hard at his heart.
The Land is cruel and hard. Aye yes salem.
A son’s work is not always to be the father’s.
A dozen winters will come again ere he sits beneath a tree of green and mellow gold in a land so easy and cool and lush that the men of Yachay, sitting around the fire laughing, rewind their loosened turbans and believe his stories to be the ravings of one who had too much sun.
Near forty winters will have passed before he stands with the fairest woman of Middle-earth, Queen to his King, in a city of a far gentler white.
His friend and steward will fret silently beside, not quite convinced that what they offer is correct. Aragorn catches his eye again, nods, and the boot’s subtle trembling stops.
Beside him, Arwen, with the graceful words of centuries, accepts a heavy fall of perfect, silken cloth. It is green and threaded gold, oh so very beautiful and she smiles; hands back to the Sultan of another reunited land a piece of exquisite Elven work.
A chest. Delicate. Adorned with mithril arabesques and words of peace.
And filled with pink crystals brought from the Iron Hills.
Aragorn watches the sable eyes of a noble man who denied the Serpent’s call alight with pleasure. “Salem.”
The gift, symbolic yes, but surely beyond price.
For the Ranger, once Estel, and now Elessar, did learn a important lesson on that day. Under Anor’s fire. Upon endless, unforgiving flats.
One Man’s idea of unneeded waste was another Man’s of wealth.
Words here in the Yachay language are modeled on Amharic, the language spoken in the Afar triangle of Ethopia. Haradi is taken from Arabic.
Selected glossary: Salem: peace; Hidi: move; Wadi: a mostly dry, seasonally wet salt lake; Tewe: halt; Samitīm amilaki: mercy of god
The practise of wife sharing described here is known from the Arctic Inuit and tribes of southwest Africa, also nomadic peoples with high infant mortality rates living in the harshest environments on Earth. It is considered to strengthen bloodlines.