The Wizard and the Goatherd by MP brennan

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Author’s Note: This story is a timestamp to “Ransom” and will make the most sense if you read that first. It takes place a few months after the conclusion of that story, during the events of the sequel, “Strangers.”

Cairistiona is my awesome beta.


Gandalf filled his lungs with the dry, sharp air of the Haradwaith. It was a welcome relief after the foul atmosphere of Ephel Dúath. Still, after trudging through this arid wasteland for more leagues than he cared to remember, he was beginning to tire of the harsh sun that beat down on him.

Yet, fear and frustration were far harder to bear than the heat. He had, after all, only hunches and suspicion that Aragorn had passed this way. He was fairly certain that the Dúnadan had passed through Núrn—too many of the wretched slaves of that land bore the signs of recent recovery from the Black Breath—but he ran short of witnesses at the foot of the Mountains of Shadow, and he lacked his quarry’s skill in tracking.

He must have come this way. Surely. The mountain pass at his back was one of the few that allowed passage through those cruel peaks, and the only one for leagues in any direction. Aragorn had come this way.

Unless, of course, he hadn’t made it this far.

Not long ago, the trackless dunes had at last given way to red earth with scraggly brown grass and a few “trees” that were shorter than he was. In the distance, he could make out a hilltop with its face smoothed flat and lined with stones—the elaborate gutter system that the Haradrim used to gather scant rainfall and eke out a living in these lands. There must be a farm there, farms meant water, and water could have meant survival for a lost traveler.

But, would Aragorn have had the knowledge to make for that hilltop? And would he have had the strength to reach it?

He stepped on something that squished under his boot. Lifting his foot, he inspected the sole and made a face. Dung.

Then he grinned. Not just dung. No, this came from no antelope or wild dog. This was goat dung or he was a hobbit. Taking another deep breath, he caught the scent not just of what was on his boot, but also of live animals not far away. Scraping the boot off as best he could, he climbed to the top of a nearby hill. Sure enough, he was not alone. A few dozen wooly-coated goats grazed on the slope beyond. And where there were goats, there were . . .

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

The voice was young, female, and speaking in Haradric. Turning, Gandalf spotted its source standing by a boulder just a few paces away—a little waif of a girl wearing a ragged, brown robe that was nearly the same color as the surrounding earth. Black hair tumbled down her back in a mass of curls, and her brown eyes were bright. The scarf around her elbows probably should have covered her head instead, but she seemed to take no notice of it. Her small hand crept toward the sling at her belt, but her eyes were more curious than afraid.

“This is our land. People aren’t supposed to come here. Especially Tarks.” Then, she clapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry! That’s a bad word.”

Gandalf scanned the surrounding land, but saw no other goatherds. He smiled warmly. “That’s alright, child.” Or, at least, that’s what he hoped he said. It had been a century or three since he’d had to speak Haradric, so it was possible that he’d told her she was an especially fine goose egg. But, when the girl did not break out in giggles, Gandalf assumed he’d gotten it right.

Her face was concerned. “You shouldn’t be here. Bad things happen when Tarks come here. Abba will be mad.”

“Then, what say we don’t tell your father?”

She seemed to consider that. After a moment, she nodded.

Gandalf pursed his lips. Something about this child’s reaction was concerning him. “What happens,” he asked her, “When northerners come here?”

She bit her lip and stared at the ground. “It’s not a good place for them. Because of the wars.”

The wizard swallowed against sudden apprehension, but he forced another smile. “Perhaps you can help me with something.” Reaching into the pouch at his belt, he pulled out something small and silver. “I’m looking for someone. A friend. A northerner like me.” He held the pin out to her. The seven rays of the Dúnedain’s star glinted in the sunlight.

Her eyes widened. She reached for the pin at once. “That’s just like Dakheel’s!”

Well, that answered the question of whether Aragorn had made it this far. “Dakheel,” of course, simply meant “stranger.” “Foreigner.” Yet, she said it like a name. It seemed Aragorn had added another appellation to his already-large collection. He forced urgency and anxiety out of his voice. “I wonder if you could tell me about this ‘Dakheel’? My friend goes by many names.”

She turned the pin over in her hands, her young face thoughtful but troubled. At his question, though, she rolled her eyes. “That’s not his real name,” she said, “It’s just what Abba called him.” She ran her thumb along the rayed star. “He had eyes like this pin.”

“He was a Man?” Gandalf prompted gently, “Dark hair, a little taller than me? And he came here?” She nodded. “Where did he come from?”

She pointed at the black peaks to the north with one thin arm. Gandalf swallowed.

“He came from the mountains, same as you. He was sick, but Mother made him well.” Her eyes sparkled suddenly. “My mother’s the best healer in the Haradwaith.” Then she looked down. “Except maybe for him.”

“Where is he now? Do you know?” The girl bit her lip and stared at the ground. Urgency seized Gandalf. Grabbing the girl by her thin shoulders, he shook her until she met his gaze. “What became of him? Tell me!

Her eyes widened and she pulled back suddenly, wrenching herself from his grip and falling to the ground. Her hands flew to her sling, but then she seemed to realize how little that would avail her and simply scrambled backwards.

Gandalf closed his eyes and called himself seven kinds of fool. Moving slowly, he squatted and forced a smile. “I’m sorry, child. I’m simply worried for my friend. Here . . .” Reaching into his pouch again, he brought out a sparkler barely larger than his finger and lit it with a touch. The white and red sparks never failed to delight children—whether Mannish or hobbit-kind—and the little goatherd was no exception. After a moment, she reached for the offered toy. While she waved it through the air like a magic wand, Gandalf forced himself to calm down and consider what she’d told him. Aragorn had almost certainly come this way. He’d been ill, but the girl said he recovered. He’d stayed here long enough for the girl’s family to give him a name, and from her eagerness when she saw the pin, he suspected the child had come to care about him. There was no reason to think this family had harmed Aragorn. Simply being Haradrim did not make them monsters, after all. Still, something was troubling him.

“Tell me about Dakheel,” he repeated, keeping his voice soft. “It’s alright. I won’t be angry. Is he the ‘Tark’ who came here? Did bad things happen when he was here?”

The flying sparks leant a glitter to her dark eyes. She spoke slowly and quietly. “Abba wanted to send him home. Back to his family, I mean. But, he wouldn’t tell us his name—his real name—so Abba couldn’t find his family. And he couldn’t stay.” The sparkler sputtered out. “Abba sent him away. With the merchants.”

“Merchants?” Gandalf prompted.

She swallowed, her eyes suddenly bright. “Slave merchants,” she spat.

Gandalf closed his eyes. Valar, no. He tried to force from his mind the premonition of Elrond’s devastated expression when he told him that the last of his brother’s line was gone. He drew a shuddering breath. Estel was strong. Perhaps there was still time. “Where did they take him?” he asked quietly, “It’s very important that you remember, child. The merchants, did they take him north?” Try as he might, Gandalf could not quite keep a tremor out of his voice.

The girl stared at the blackened stump of the sparkler. “Abba said he went to live with the rich people in Umbar. He said the nobles buy Tarks just to run messages for them and brush their horses.” She breathed out slowly. “But, I asked my friend Nazli, and she said they take Tarks onto the big ships and make them row and whip them.”

“But, they took him to Umbar? You’re sure of that?”

She shrugged. “That’s what my father said. And my brother. Hakim wouldn’t lie to me.”

Gandalf breathed a sigh that mingled horror with relief. He knew more than he wished to about the Umbari and their addiction to slave labor. He knew, without a doubt, that Aragorn was suffering and might have died—that he might still die before help could reach him. It did not bode well that he’d apparently been weak enough that this girl’s father could force him into chains. Still, Umbar was better than Mordor.

Anything was better than Mordor.

Abruptly, he realized that he couldn’t simply go haring off into Harad based solely on a little girl’s recognition of a star-shaped pin. Reaching into his pouch one more time, he pulled out a bit of parchment, unfolded it, and handed it to the girl. “Is this Dakheel?”

She studied the parchment and a slight frown creased her forehead. The drawing was simple—sketched in charcoal by a certain young elleth who swore that her feelings for Estel were purely familial and would acknowledge no evidence to the contrary. It showed a much younger Aragorn, his face softly lit as if by moonlight, his expression free of care and almost enraptured. The little girl frowned doubtfully. “Maybe . . .”

“That’s an old picture,” Gandalf said. Inspiration struck him quite suddenly. “Would you like to see a newer one?”

She nodded, so Gandalf ushered her over to the boulder she’d recently been sitting on. The stone was a deep black, like the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, but worn smooth by wind and sand. Gandalf brushed a bit of dirt off its flat surface and pulled a vial of salt from his pouch. After dumping the salt in a small pile on the boulder, he grinned at the child. “Would you like to see a magic trick?” Without waiting for a response, he closed his eyes, focused on a memory of Aragorn’s face, and blew, in a short series of interrupted puffs that scattered the salt.

When the girl gasped in delight, Gandalf opened his eyes and surveyed his handiwork with satisfaction. With white grains of salt against a black background, he’d sketched Aragorn as he’d been when Gandalf had last seen him—proud and stern in the livery of a Captain of Gondor. Gandalf turned to the girl with a smile. “Is this Dakheel?”

Her eyes were as big as saucers. She nodded wordlessly and inspiration struck one more time.

“Child, how would you like to do some magic?”

He wouldn’t have thought her eyes could widen any further, but they did. “Really?”

Gandalf brushed the salt back into a pile. “Really.”

She hesitated and spitted Gandalf with a suspicious look. “Mother says magic’s not real.”

“Well, you know better, don’t you?”

The girl considered that. Then, she nodded eagerly. Gandalf directed her to stand before the boulder and rested his hands on her thin shoulders. “All you have to do,” he told her quietly, “Is to think of Dakheel as you last saw him. Make a picture in your mind. Focus on every detail. Then, when I say ‘now,’ let it go.”

As she closed her eyes, Gandalf reached out tentatively. All he needed was a touch of power—enough to shape her lungs to follow the contours of the image in her mind . . . “Now.”

The girl let out a breath in a steady stream. The salt swirled and eddied . . . then settled.

Gandalf was impressed. The child’s picture was far more intricate and detailed than his own. It spoke to either impressive mental discipline or a very active imagination. It showed Aragorn dressed in a somewhat ragged tunic, riding one of those strange desert beasts the Haradrim tamed. Camels. Yes, that was what they called them. Leaning close, Gandalf noted that Aragorn seemed a bit haggard, despite the crude medium. Something—blood?—was trickling down his face. Then, he glanced down and realized that “riding” was not exactly the right word.

Aragorn was tied to the camel.

Gandalf swallowed hard as the girl’s eyes fluttered open. He’d expected squeals of delight when she realized she’d done something that was obviously impossible, but the child simply looked at the image with sad eyes. “He didn’t think anybody would come for him. That’s why he didn’t give Abba his name.” She looked up at Gandalf, her face full of hope. “But, you came. You’re going to help him, aren’t you?”

He squeezed her shoulders gently. “Yes, child. And you’ve been of great assistance.”

Gandalf was going to help Aragorn if he had to chase him to the very edge of the world.

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Night had fallen over the Haradwaith, and still Gandalf lingered, studying the humble farm on which the Heir of Elendil’s fate had apparently turned. Clearly, it had been quite the grand estate, once. As he’d crept closer to the house, he’d passed the crumbled bricks and stone foundations of countless disused outbuildings. But, what had once been a mansion was now an odd cross between an abandoned ruin and a peasant’s cot. Whole wings of the house had apparently been sealed off and allowed to languish—the adobe crumbling, the roof tiles blown off until only the skeletal framework remained. Only the front-most part of the house remained in good repair, with light shining from windows and smoke rising from a single chimney.

Well, this explained a bit more, Gandalf decided. If he recalled correctly from his cursory study of these lands, an estate of this size would historically have employed mostly slave labor. There were no slaves here now, though, and he suspected that there hadn’t been for a generation or more—structures crumbled slowly in the desert. Still, the landowner likely retained the memory—the cultural lineage—of slaveholders past, though he had fallen on hard times. Gandalf would have to tread lightly; while he had nothing to fear from these simple people, things might go ill if they became aware of him and spread the news of his presence in Harad. It would be better if the girl’s father never learned that he was here.

He ran his thumb slowly over Narya, hearing the gentle echoes of Celebrimbor’s strength. They had put pieces of themselves into their works—those great Elven smiths. That kind of power left a certain resonance behind, for those who knew how to listen. It mattered not whether the ring in question was one of the Three or a simple trinket.

Gandalf closed his eyes and listened, humming softly as he did so. There. He heard a subtle counterpoint to Narya’s stronger tones—he was almost sure of it. And unless someone had cast a millennia-old Elf-crafted ring into the empty, red earth, it could only be coming from the ruined estate.

He made a mental note to tease Aragorn for losing something he much treasured.

He didn’t let himself consider that perhaps Aragorn would never again have need of the Ring of Barahir.

He needed to be certain. Gandalf waited, concealed by the growing dark and the crest of a ridge, until no more light shone through the coverings on any of the windows. Then, he waited a few hours more, just to be safe. Farmers normally slept with the sun, but there was no reason to take unnecessary chances.

When the house had been utterly still for over two hours, Gandalf crept down the hill, past a barn of rough brick, and up a beaten dirt path to the house’s front door. The door was locked, but it opened at a whispered word. In the entryway, he bent and carefully pulled his boots off. In his stocking feet, he was nearly silent. Hobbits were onto something there.

He dared not risk a light, but he little needed one. The echoes of Finrod’s craftsmanship were stronger here. He followed them down a tiled hallway, paused before a certain door, and pushed it soundlessly open.

Soft moonbeams illuminated the small room beyond, falling over furniture and bedclothes and the sleeping face of a Man. Gandalf stood stock still for a moment, but the figure slept on in his narrow bed. Studying him more closely, he realized this might not be a man in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, it was a boy—a youth, perhaps only a year or two from majority. This, then, must be the brother the little girl had mentioned. Hakim. Gandalf approached silently and brushed a hand over the lad’s forehead. He would sleep more deeply, now, and Gandalf could risk a bit of light.

With such a small chamber, his search took only a few brief minutes. The chest at the foot of the boy’s bed held only some clothes, a few poor treasures, and a ring worth more than the rest of the house combined. The soft light from his staff glinted off a scrap of silver. Gandalf picked it up and rolled it in his palm. It made a soft clinking noise where it tapped against Narya. He closed his fingers over it.

He was stalling. He had the proof he needed—had had that proof since the girl’s eyes had first lit up at the sight of the Dúnedain pin. Aragorn had been here. Now he was gone, and it was past time Gandalf was on his way as well. Opening his hand once more, he realized that he couldn’t simply take the Ring of Barahir with him, though that might seem at first glance to be the safest option. This family might notice its absence, after all, and report it missing. The last thing they needed was for the servants of Sauron to hear a detailed description of this particular token. Lifting the ring to his lips, he whispered a few chosen words. Now, he could leave it and, with luck, it would simply escape notice. This boy and his parents would not forget its existence, but it would not easily rise to mind unless something first reminded them of it. Hopefully, that would prevent them from pawning it off to fix their roof or buy a new goat.

Back in the hallway, he paused one more time. Tentatively, he reached out and touched an adobe wall, feeling dust and powder under his hands. Yet, when he lifted his fingertips to his nose, the dust smelled like nothing so much as the clear mountain air of Taniquetil. Athelas. Aragorn had been here.

He was at the front door, doing his best not to hop while pulling on his boots, when a thought occurred to him. For him to have smelled even a faint whiff of kingsfoil so long after Aragorn’s departure was no coincidence. Aragorn must have woken the herb, calling forth its power to aid him in healing, as he occasionally did when the need was great. What was it about this family, Gandalf wondered, that he had gone to such lengths for them? And did it avail him at all, in the end?

He shook his head and put on his hat as he stepped out into the night air. If he was clever and his friend was lucky, Aragorn might yet live to tell him the whole story.

Fin

Author’s Note: Hope you enjoyed this little tale! Reviews and concrit make my heart sing.




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