After Khassan was lost, his wives mourned him for a long time. But even with my family’s help, first one then another found new husbands, and we obliged them by declaring him dead. The funeral took a week, and Father, Firstmother, and I traveled in state to their village in the mountains to attend. The women there wore turbans as the men did, and the merest whisps of veils -and only during ceremonies! They danced with sinuous twists of their hips around fires while the men danced counter in the outer circle. We did not dance. It wouldn’t have been proper. But the drums and the cymbals stirred my blood and made my heart race with emotion, both for Khassan and Faisal. I wondered, some time later, if all our prayers guiding his soul back to the Rivermouth (where the setting sun takes the dead to the Otherworld) were what led him back to us.
One day a strange man came to our court. I sat at my father’s right hand in my mother’s place, and my son sat beside me. Amir was being very good, and would get his baklava if he lasted a full hour. I smiled every time I glanced to see the plume on his turban twitching when he shifted from boredom as the petitioners discussed weighty adult things.
But back to this man. He wore rags and was all bones. His hair was covered by a threadbare turban, but his beard was now shot with grey. I took him for one of the beggars who would stay to the end to be given food, as was their right. It is the greatest of sins to let a man leave your house hungry when you yourself have food. We often gave clothing too, and tried when we could to find work for widows and orphans. It was becoming difficult to manage. But our eyes saw ‘beggar’ and looked away from his nakedness, for he had sacrificed most of his cloth for the turban, leaving only a scrap for his loins. As much as it is a shame for a woman’s hair to go uncovered, so to it is a shame for men.
We were a little surprised when he joined the roll of petitioners. And then, my father’s eyes grew wet as I’d never seen them before, and with a cry he left his cushion and ran to embrace the grizzled man. And that man! He embraced my father, and the wept as I’d never seen men weep, even when Faisal’s sword was placed on the breast of the false mummy we had made of him, and we had said our final farewells to his Ka before the priests gave him the secret instructions for entering the Otherworld. My son looked at me and I looked back. And then, my father said, “Kill the fatted calf! Sacrifice a hundred pidgoens for the sacred cats of Bast! Bring trousers and a robe, and prepare the baths! Khassan, our sword-arm, is returned!”
Khassan! I could barely recognize the handsome man I remembered in the wasted face before us. And such a return! Only one wife remained to greet him, and his sons (that were not away fighting) had to be gathered up from their new households. Khassan was kind. He let those wives who had left remain where they were, and did not take their children. It was within his rights, but not all that is legal is just. His belongings – tents, house, prized hounds – all of it! – gone to buy his sons wives and to feed his younger children. My father’s own physician tended to him as his startled family came to fuss. It was a strange, bitter homecoming, but Khassan would say only, “Thanks be to the winds who heard me and swayed the heart of my deliverer! A thousand blessings on him!”
The laws of hospitality demand that a guest be fed and clothed before any questions are asked. We gave Khassan more time than that, for he was feeble and ill and needed to regain his balance in life. His one remaining wife stayed by his side and fed him from her trembling hand, and his daughters fussed over him like a flock of chattering songbirds. His sons came and went, those that were just old enough to be helpful but not old enough to fight. A single mating pair of dogs were found from his old kennels, and a house was being built in his village. Friends brought swords and armour, clothing and furniture. So few came back now that the entire city seemed eager to celebrate. He could have had ten wives by the week’s end, but he said he would wait until he could bed them all in a night. His wife laughed and laughed.
After the feasting and celebration, he sat with us at our table in the place of honor, served by my own hand and Firstmother’s. My father was a very old man by that time, and he too needed our help to cut meat for his shaking hands. Firstmother had hair that was nearly white. After we ate, Amir napped on Khassan’s lap, and our lost retainer finally told us the strange tale of his long absence in the wastes of the North.
“It was that very first battle,” he said, “In which we fought. Our commander was an idiot from Umbar who saw fresh riders, pointed us at a blocked pass, and said, “Charge!” My Emir, even if Faisal were twenty feet tall, a wizard, and a djinn, he still would have fallen. To my shame, I did not fall with him, but was knocked from my horse into a ravine. By the time I scrambled back, your son was dead. And I am sorry to say that his fate was kinder than that which awaited those of us the Gondorian Efreet captured. Cursed be the name of Ro Vamb’ad!
“The dog had charge over a garrison, and nearby a salt mine. It was this mine, I think, that our Umbarian captain was attempting to capture. Salt in those lands is worth more than gold, and did our captor ever become wealthy from it! He used his captives to work as slaves, only slaves who had not been convicted and had no hope of redeeming themselves with their labor-pay. We got only enough water to live, and only enough gruel to keep us on our bare feet. What they did to the women they had, the less said the better. We dug all day, and many died when the tunnels fell in, or when their bodies gave them release from the agony of living. Umbar must have decided to storm other camps, for my captivity lasted… hmm. years, it seems now. In that waste, there is no flood to tell you that a year has come or gone, and the stars were denied us. Only the graying of my beard and the waning of my flesh could tell me of the time that was being stolen from me.
“But the winds who hear all and the sun who sees all heard me in my extremity! I was tested and found worthy, for the day came when a new Gondorian and his men stumbled upon the pit of salt. I saw him put his fist to Ro Vamb’ad’s face, and our captor, whom we had begun to think of as a daemon in flesh, fell to the ground like any other man. This new Gondorian drove out his guards and those who would torture for fun and use our women in the pits. His own men did not do these things. They found us better food and took us into the sun. We were still prisoners of war, but he looked on us with mercy. To each of us he said, “Do you swear to return to your home, there to stay and abide in peace? Lay down your sword, and you will be free to go.”
“He had my wounds bound and a physician called. For a week he kept me until I could travel. We spoke only through interpreters, but when I told him I was from the Valley and would much rather be there, he bade me go in peace. I swore then that I would repay him life for life, if ever fate should send him to me. And so let the winds hear that to Ar-Thalion of Gondor I owe life for life.”
My father smiled his face into a wrinkled net and said, “Perhaps a sad thing that he will never be so far South that you can repay him. But then, I pray that Gondorian feet may never tread our banks, and that Umbarian feet leave them.”
Khassan’s smile faded a little as he said, “I meant my oath, my Lord. Never again will I march in war against Gondor. If Umbar comes for me, I will not go.”
I said then, “We will hide you if we must, you and your remaining sons. Never again will they take a single one of my people only to send them like cattle to slaughter!”
“Aminah!” Firstmother said. “Umbar’s arm is long, even here. For peace, some concessions must be made.”
Father was quiet for a very long time. At last he said, “Perhaps if there were more Emirs like Aminahli, there would be fewer wars for Umbar to fight. Perhaps we have been too willing to sacrifice our children to keep our own peace.”
That was all that was said. The curious story of Ar-Thalion made its rounds amid general consternation. Why would one Gondorian commander go against another? Were they so divided? Why had the new one not simply taken the mine and its wealth for himself? Why had he pardoned his enemies, pathetic though they were after years in the mines? We concluded at last that he was no Gondorian at all, but rather Ma’at herself in disguise, come to bring justice to her people at long last. Why she came to that place and in that time was a mystery. But more followed Khassan homewards, and all told the same story of this strange foreign captain of the death-pale skin who took their oaths, then sent them home. Surely, this was Ma’at.