A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russel) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
(from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time)
Walking through the garden, Aragorn bit down on his lip to keep from laughing out loud. He knew that, should he allow himself to start, he would never be able to stop. This was not laughter at a story well-told, or the first sight of a cousin after long absence; no, the laughter building in his chest was bitter, almost hysterical, at the hideous turn the world seemed set on taking.
Even the words he used felt wrong. This was no garden, at least not as Aragorn had always used the term. Here in the heart of desert, an oasis might give water enough to sustain a community, yet it was still foolish to waste it on plants without use. Herbs they might grow in boxes on the window-sill, and vegetables for the stew-pot if the family was truly rich in water.
But a garden? Who was rich enough to waste water on such pleasantries? No, even the sayyid was not so well off that he could afford the great flower-bushes Gilraen had tended back in Rivendell. They carved rocks here instead, and set them about the courtyard, chosen for their color and grain and cunningly fashioned to please the eye. It was beautiful, Aragorn would grant that, yet it hardly felt like a true garden.
He leaned his head back, letting the faint evening breeze whisper against his skin. It slipped past the open collar of his linen tunic, cooling his throat and chest. For a moment he could almost hear the tinkle of Elven laughter and song, and the tinkle of waterfalls into cool pools. 'Twas but an afterimage, a memory, but it still felt true. How he wanted to flee this southern wasteland, leave the sand and the heat and the parching thirst and the ruin of Sauron over all, but for the moment his feet were rooted to this spot.
"You should be asleep by now," a voice said behind him. "Dawn comes early, and the Consummation waits for no man."
Aragorn turned on his heel so he faced the open window looking out on the courtyard. There she stood: Fatima, the sayyid's youngest daughter. He remembered when he had first sworn fealty to her father, how even then she had impressed him with her curiosity and spirit. Now, though, she was truly a thing to be reckoned with. The moonlight caught on the gossamer threads of her sleeping-gown so she glimmered as Aragorn imagined Tilion himself would. She leaned out her window and the wind caught up the strands of her unbound hair so they fluttered around her shoulders.
She would be a true vision of beauty, if not for the gold marriage-band that glimmered on her finger in the lamp-light.
"The house is near stuffed to the roof-beams, my lady, you know that as well as any," Aragorn replied. "Your father has bunked me with his seneschal, but the man was deep enough in his cups tonight, and he snores when he is drunk. I thought to take in the stars."
"The stars," she said softly, and the spark faded a little from her eyes. "They say I shall light the heavens ere week's end." Aragorn nodded, for the seneschal had explained tomorrow's ceremony to him, how the Haradrim believed the One honored his beloved wives each with a star in the heaven. Fatima shook her head as if to clear her eyes before smiling purposefully at Aragorn. "Will you come in?"
"You know I may not," he answered. "You are as a married lady to your people now, and it would be unseemly for you to entertain me, alone and so late."
Fatima smiled mischievously at that, and one less close to her might have been fooled by her good humor. Aragorn, though, had served as her bodyguard this last year (for there were those even in Harad who would deprive Sauron of a sacrifice, or who were simply jealous of the sayyid); he was all too familiar with her, and knew that her bluster would have been even more pronounced on any other day.
He longed to speak freely to her. He would tell her how Sauron was not so all-powerful as he might seem, how his longfather had stolen a fruit from the One's stronghold on an island now buried under the sea, and how that forefather had lived to tell the tale – indeed, had been so blessed by the true powers of the world that his line survived even to this day. Just then the burden of silence felt so heavy that he was sure his knees would buckle under it. It was a pillar of turtles upon his back, he thought, remembering the story her people told. Not a foundation for the world but an interminable burden, one turtle after another weighing on him until it passed even the sun: a never-ending series of half-truths and deceptions. Ai, but how he longed to speak freely!
But no; she might speak to her father in the morning, before the Consummation, and Aragorn could not dare to show himself so plainly. "I will sit and talk with you for a while," he said after a moment, "if my lady wills it." He took a seat on the bench below her window and loped his legs over the armrest in impertinent familiarity.
Fatima cocked an eyebrow at that; so it worked as Aragorn had wished, gave her a distraction. "The house is full, isn't it?" she asked. "I miss the sound of children, sometimes, with my brothers living so far away. Nazir has grown so fast, I hardly recognize him!"
At that Aragorn did smile genuinely, for the tot had insisted on reaching into every pocket he could reach, whether it belonged to a magistrate or a kitchen servant. "Will you miss it?" he asked before he fully realized what he was saying.
"His childhood, or having children of my own?" Fatima flicked one of Aragorn's toes playfully. "Neither and both, I suppose. I would say I will miss you all, for I am sorry I will not be a part of your lives past tomorrow, but the sages tell me that the court of the One is a world I can scarcely imagine. They say it will be so glorious that no one could remember her childhood, her family, or cry over what-might-have-beens." She looked down at her hand and twisted her wedding-band absentmindedly. "It is a great honor," she added.
On that last note, though, her voice betrayed her, and her doubt struck Aragorn like the desert's heat at mid-day. He wondered how much of what she said was to comfort him, how much for distraction – and how much was to convince herself. And he almost spoke his mind, then, for all that he had just convinced himself not to; the absurdity of the whole affair was enough to drive him past the brink.
She was not a bride, whatever her family might say, for all they gave her a feast and anointed her with fine perfumes. How could there be a wedding without a bridegroom there to join her? And the Consummation made a mockery of the just joys of a true marriage-bed; she would get none of that in the morning. No, her family would escort her in honor to the altar in the wilderness and leave her there, and she would lie on a bed of stone until the dogs came. Better for her if they did, for Aragorn himself had felt the long pain of days without water. He would not wish such a fate upon the cruelest orc, and so much less upon the girl he had come to see almost as a sister.
In the end, though, he bit his tongue, more for brotherly love than out of prudence or fear for his own safety. He was a poor bodyguard indeed, to leave her vulnerable to such dangers, but he would not make things worse by robbing her of what comforts she could find. Faith might at least lessen the sting of that first day, and if the Powers of the West had not wholly deserted Middle-earth, perhaps Fatima would never face a second.
He breathed deeply, focusing on Fatima's perfume to calm his mind. He could at least offer her company on this night. He knew he would not see this through come morning – he would not, could not, be party to such an affair – but for tonight, he was hers to command. "The stars are truly strange here," he said after a moment, "and I would know what stories your people tell of them." He pointed to a row of three bright stars to the north of the town. "Will you teach me? How do you name them?"
By the next afternoon Aragorn's legs seemed heavy as iron; whether from lack of sleep or guilt or doubts, he dared not guess. He struggled over the dune, moving as quickly as he could, for he was not fool enough to think that the sayyid would not set men to track him. He had committed those capital crimes, theft of water and desertion of duty, either of which would earn him a sayyaf's sword through his neck.
He would have laughed at that, if he were less tired: that he should be executed for those crimes, and not for abandoning a young girl to the wilderness. But even a smile reminded him too much of Fatima.
Of a sudden, running struck him as foolish in the extreme. He should have seen it before, the inanity of accepting her fate as sealed. She might not come with him willingly, but by the time he reached her she might be too drained to resist him. If he could but evade the sayyim's guards, and if she could but hold on to life for a day more, perhaps he could reach her and find some way to save her.
He could at least try.