Was this the Spirit World? Hulagu wondered. He had not expected death to hurt so much. The great beast was in this realm too, tearing at his flesh and sucking his soul away. He had thought his kinsfolk would be here to greet him, but he was alone in this pain filled void of terror.
Sometimes there was light and water was held to his lips. He gulped it thirstily before returning to the darkness.
Hulagu gradually returned to awareness. It seemed that he was still alive. He was lying on a sort of high couch in a sparsely furnished white room. His right leg was missing from just above the knee and his head and chest throbbed painfully. Black robed men tended to him, but they appeared to be medicine men rather than acolytes. They gave him vile tasting potions to swallow but also brought him food and water. The food was plain and tasted strange to him, but seemed wholesome enough. He was bathed each day. They had taken his clothes and he was now garbed only in a long linen shirt.
Hulagu was not treated unkindly, but he was terrified. His captors were brisk and efficient. He knew they would sacrifice him to their gods and wondered why they delayed. He would have asked them, but they seemed not to understand a word he said. Some of them knew a few words to enquire of his basic needs such as "water", but that was all.
One day, an old woman came to dress his wounds. She chattered away incessantly, seemingly oblivious to his lack of comprehension. It was good to hear another human voice, though, and her face was kind. She reminded him of the old medicine woman in his village.
Hulagu wondered if any of his fellows had survived. He wondered whether they had been slain on the battlefield or sacrificed to the Tark gods. He had no idea why he was still alive. Days passed, merging into weeks. He had no idea how long he had been in this place. The nightmares continued to torment him every time he slept. Sometimes his screams brought the medicine men, who would dose him with more evil tasting potions which caused him to sleep.
The days grew longer and Hulagu could tell the medicine men were excited about something from the animated way in which they spoke and the smiles on their faces. One day, he could hear bells ringing and trumpets blowing and the sound of cheering in the distance. His fear increased. At home, such festivities preceded a great sacrifice. They would surely come for him soon.
Several days passed, Hulagu was unsure how many as all days were alike in this place. The door of his room opened and instead of one of the black- robed medicine men or women, a stranger entered. He was exceptionally tall and had the air of a warrior about him, though he was simply clad in a grey cloak over a well cut tunic and trousers. On his breast, he wore a brooch shaped like a bird and set with a great green stone.
Hulagu was terrified by this new arrival and cowered under the blankets. The stranger seated himself on the chair beside Hulagu's couch. "Greetings," he said in a heavily- accented version of the Easterling tongue. "How do you fare?"
Hulagu was too frightened to reply.
The stranger continued, "Do you understand me, lad? You are an Easterling, are you not?"
Hulagu nodded mutely.
"As I can speak your tongue, the healers asked me to speak to you as we need to decide what to do with you now the war is over," said the stranger. "What is your name, lad?"
The stranger smiled. "A fine name and in your tongue it has a similar meaning to my Steward's name."
"I know you mean to sacrifice me, so do it quickly, please!" Hulagu started to babble in his terror. "Cut my throat, but do not let the crows slowly devour me!"
The stranger stared at him with an expression of horror. "Sacrifice you? Feed you to the crows? What do you take us for, lad? Savages?"
"I am your prisoner. Prisoners are sacrificed. It is the custom."
"It might well be your custom, but it is certainly not ours!" The stranger's tone was sharp then softened.
"They are all dead?" Hulagu asked sadly.
"By no means," said the stranger. "Many of your folk fled from the field when the battle turned against them. Others were taken prisoner or wounded and brought here. The Healers tell me that two of your comrades came to your bedside when you were unconscious. They think they were friends of yours, but we could not understand what they was saying."
"Alani and Qara?" Hulagu cried, his eyes lighting up. "They are in this place?"
The stranger shook his head. "Onewas healed of a broken arm and the other had broken ribs. They have gone home to their people now. Those of your people we captured, we sent home once Sauron was defeated. You are still here in the Houses of Healing as your injuries were too severe for you to travel. The healers say it is a marvel you survived with a fractured skull, crushed ribs and a crushed leg. Sadly, they could not save your leg, but your ribs and head are almost healed they tell me."
"Why save your enemies?" asked Hulagu.
"The healers are sworn to treat all the sick and injured who are brought to them," the man replied. "When we searched the battlefield, you were found beneath a pile of corpses, still breathing, so we brought you here to heal. Now we have to see how we can send you home."
For a moment, Hulagu's heart soared. Then he glanced down at where his leg used to be and remembered. "There are no men in my land missing a leg. I would be seen as cursed, a bringer of ill luck."
"Have you no family to protect and care for you?" the stranger asked.
"My parents died when I was young. An old woman in my village raised me for I had no other kin."
The stranger looked grave. "I would suggest that you remain here, but the healers tell me you carry the mark of the lidless eye over your heart." He reached across and placed a hand on Hulagu's brow. "I sense a darkness within you too. I care not whom Men worship, save one. I will have no veneration of Sauron and his evil in my lands. Though he is no more, his evil lingers in some hearts and causes discord."
Hulagu regarded the man in wonder. "The Lord of Gifts is no more?"
"He was utterly defeated and his spirit carried away on the winds," said the stranger. "But tell me, are you one of his followers."
"I am sworn to him body and soul, even though I worship Tengri," Hulagu said bitterly. "There were nine of us, the chosen ones. I never asked to be chosen. I am not even a soldier; I'm a potter's apprentice. I wanted to make pots, not kill people!"
The stranger regarded Hulagu with piercing grey eyes that seemed to pierce deep within his very soul. "Tell me about it," he said.
Hulagu thought it would be hard to speak of that dark day when he was chosen, but once he began he found the words came tumbling out in a vast torrent. He described the sacrifice of his friend, how he came to be chosen and the way he was marked with the Eye and then consecrated with Möngke's blood.
The stranger listened intently. Hulagu could not bring himself to study his expression. He could all too easily imagine the contempt and disgust he would find there.
The stranger did not interrupt. He only spoke when Hulagu had concluded his story. "Would you permit me to see the mark?"
Hulagu looked at him in surprise. This was the very last reaction he had expected. He was puzzled that it was a request rather than a command. He hesitated. There was something noble in this man's bearing and the mark made him feel unclean. Nevertheless, he nodded and pulled the shirt he was wearing over his head. He glanced down at the mark. He had had suffered numerous cuts and bruises from the battle. They had faded, but the mark of the lidless eye still stood out livid against his skin.
"Lie down," the man instructed him.
Hulagu did as he was told. The stranger's face was expressionless, reminding the boy of the many medicine men who had tended to him. Maybe this man was one of them, though he seemed to have more of the air of a warrior. He placed his hand on the mark and only then did his neutral expression falter. The feeling of heaviness that had plagued Hulagu for weeks seemed to increase and he felt as if something were slithering around inside him. He started to tremble.
The stranger removed his hand and pulled the blankets over the boy. His expression was grave. "There is indeed darkness within you," he said. "It torments you; body and soul. I believe I can help you, though, if you would permit me."
"Dark dreams disturb my sleep each night," said Hulagu, surprised that the stranger seemed to know this. "I want them to go away."
"It might cause you some discomfort to cleanse you," said the stranger. "It is the only way to free you of this evil, though. This mark was sealed with a cruel blood sacrifice which trapped the darkness within you, even though Sauron is no more."
"I swore the oath too," said Hulagu.
"Did you swear it of your own free will without any coercion, though? From your story I think not."
Hulagu nodded. "I was too afraid not to swear the oath. I yearn now to be free of the darkness." He shuddered, though as he spoke, wondering just what the stranger would do to him. Maybe he would cut the mark off or burn it with fire? Hulagu hoped he could be brave. The stranger went to the door and called for hot water.
A few minutes later, the talkative old woman appeared with a bowl of steaming water and several cloths, which she placed on the table beside Hulagu's couch. She smiled at him reassuringly as the stranger dismissed her.
The stranger fumbled in his tunic and brought out two long slender leaves which he crumbled into the steaming water. A fragrance filled the air, which reminded Hulagu of his life before he had been made to become a soldier. His heart suddenly lightened, but only for an instant before the heaviness returned.
The stranger pulled back the blankets to reveal the mark again. He spoke words that Hulagu could not understand. He then dipped his hands in mixture in the bowl and placed both hands over Hulagu's heart where the mark was.
Hulagu cried out as a searing pain shot through him, followed by a writhing and pulling sensation. The stranger's face seemed contorted with pain too. After what felt like an eternity, but must only have been a few minutes, he removed his hands. The mark looked angry and inflamed.
Hulagu could hardly believe his eyes when something that looked like black smoke began to rise from the mark. The stranger rushed to the window and threw it open. The black smoke drifted out of the room and dissolved into nothingness and with it went the sense of heaviness that had plagued the boy for so long. The stranger took one of the cloths and dipped it in the mixture and placed it on Hulagu's chest. A living freshness filled the air.
For the first time in many months, Hulagu began to weep. Every emotion that had been buried within him; grief for Möngke, being forced to take part in the ritual, the loss of his leg, and being wrenched from his homeland came pouring out in a torrent of weeping. As well as the sadness, there was also an overwhelming sense of joy and relief.
The stranger said nothing. He wiped away Hulagu's tears with a clean cloth, then placed a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. He did not speak until Hulagu's tears were spent. He then placed a hand on the boy's brow and smiled. "The darkness has left you. You are cleansed from it. Do you feel better now?"
Hulagu nodded and a smile spread over his features. "I do. You have powerful magic, sir. Are you a shaman?"
The stranger shook his head. "The power of healing is in my blood, though I was taught by the Wise how to use it to fight the darkness." He removed the cloth that covered the mark of the Eye.
Hulagu was astonished to see that the mark was fading before his eyes.
"You are free now, Hulagu." The stranger handed him his shirt to put on again.
Hulagu's smile faded. "The oath I swore was until death. I am cursed by breaking it!"
"A vow sworn under duress is not binding," the stranger said firmly. "However, as an oath to an old lord now dead may be replaced by an oath to a new lord, you could swear a new oath in due course if you wished." With a gesture of his hand, he silenced Hulagu from replying. "Think about it, as this time it must be of your own free will. I will return on the morrow. Until then, let your heart be easy." With that he left the small chamber.
As soon as Hulagu was alone, he felt very tired. The old woman returned and took away the bowl and cloths. She then brought him food and drink. After he had eaten, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep for the first time since the ritual.
The stranger was as good as his word and returned the next day. He placed his hand on Hulagu's brow and smiled. "There is no darkness within you now. You are free to dwell here in Gondor."
"I would like to swear a new oath," Hulagu told him.
The stranger smiled. "I thought that might be your choice, but first you must recover fully and learn our language so that you can speak the words and understand them. The healers will teach you how to walk on crutches. There is a potter in the fourth circle who lost his apprentice in the war and would, therefore, be willing to employ you when you leave the Houses of Healing. You would receive a small wage and your bed and board. What say you?"
"I should like that," said Hulagu. "I was happy when I was making pots." A sudden thought struck him. "But I have no clothes to wear!"
The grey –cloaked man's eyes twinkled. "Have no fear, Master Hulagu, the healers will not send you out into the world clad only in your nightshirt! Clothes will be provided for you before you leave your bed here."
Hulagu heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank you, sir."
"You can make a new life here," said the stranger. "It will not be easy, but I believe in time you will be happy here." He squeezed Hulagu's shoulder. "Farewell for now. We will meet again."
The stranger had been right. Building a new life was far from easy for Hulagu. He persevered, though. First, he had to learn to walk on crutches, a slow, painful and laborious process. Once he could totter around the Houses of Healing without falling flat on his face, the healers pronounced him fit to leave. At the same time as he learned to walk again, Hulagu sought to learn the tongue of the people he was now living amongst.
Two guards came with a litter and carried him through the city to the potter's house. Hulagu had never seen anything like Minas Tirith with its splendid stone buildings and crowds of people.
The potter, Master Hador, was a kindly man who gave Hulagu a small chamber on the ground floor next to the workshop. He was interested in learning about styles of pottery from Hulagu's homeland as well as teaching him how to make pottery in the style of Gondor. His whole family made pots, including his pretty daughter who was about Hulagu's age. Hulagu enjoyed his work and his master was understanding and would let him rest when his injuries pained him.
Weeks passed into months and the seasons passed. Hulagu rarely left the potter's house. He found the steep streets difficult to navigate on crutches and many folk looked at him in a less than friendly fashion. Some days he felt very sad, especially when he missed his homeland and his friends and after he had nightmares about his time as a soldier. These were ordinary nightmares, though, and nothing like the dreams that had tormented him before. Sometimes, he woke up feeling sad after dreaming of his childhood when he had played with the other boys in the village. Other days, he was in pain when it seemed as if his right leg was still there and throbbing uncomfortably. His scars had healed, though, and the mark of the Eye had faded completely.
His life was far better than he could have hoped, however, and he enjoyed his work. He often thought about the stranger. He wondered about who exactly he was. Maybe he was a Noyan, but he also seemed to be a healer and a magician too. He asked Master Hador if he knew of any magicians. Hador said he did know of a wizard called Mithrandir, but he was an old man and had a long white beard.
One winter's morning at breakfast, which Hulagu ate with Hador and his family, the potter was in a happy mood. "I have received a message to say that the King is coming here today with Queen Arwen and the Steward," he said. "He likes the plates I've been selling with the design of the White Tree and would like me to make him some special ones."
"I will bake a special cake for them," Hador's wife said.
The Potter's daughter, Adanel, glowed with excitement. "They are truly coming here, Father? I've heard the Queen is the fairest lady that ever lived. I shall wear my best gown."
Hulagu felt greatly unsettled by the tidings. In his land, kings were fierce, proud and unpredictable. One false move could lead to instant death. He doubted that this king would look on him kindly, a foreigner and former enemy. "Please may I stay in my room, Master, while they are here?" he begged.
"Don't you wish to meet our visitors, lad?" said Hador. "I don't know the King and Queen, but Lord Faramir is a good man. I believe it is thanks to him that you came to me."
Hulagu looked puzzled. "I have never met the Steward."
"Just before the coronation, Lord Faramir toured the City and met with us craftsmen," Hador explained. "He asked us about our losses during the war and I told him that my apprentice had been killed by a chunk of falling masonry. Not long afterwards, I was asked to take you in."
"For which I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Master. I'm sure Lord Faramir is a good man, but please don't make me meet them!"
"As you wish," said Hador. He took a swig from his mug. "But enough talk, we must finish breakfast quickly if we are to be ready when the royal party arrive."
Hulagu retreated to his room as soon as Adanel excitedly announced that she could see the visitors approaching. He took with him charcoal and parchment to sketch some new designs. He was far too frightened to concentrate, though. He had not only borne arms against this King, but had been pledged to the service of the Lord of Gifts. The So- called Lord of Gifts, he mentally corrected himself. Sauron had brought him nothing but a lost limb and exile from his homeland.
A tap at the door roused him from his reverie. Hador's voice called out. "Hulagu, the King wishes to see you!"
Hulagu's heart thumped like that of a frightened bird. He wanted to flee or to hide, but there was no room under the bed and only an able-bodied man could have climbed out of the small window.
"Come Hulagu!" Hador pushed open the door. "There is nothing to fear. The King seems a kindly man, much like Lord Faramir. He is most insistent that he wishes to see you, though."
Hulagu could do nothing, but take up his crutch and follow Hador out into the workshop. Three people were standing beside the potter and his family; a woman so fair that it almost dazzled him to look at her, a grave young man, and the man he still thought of as "the stranger". Today he was far more finely dressed and wore a fur lined cloak, but the same brooch set with a green gem adorned his breast.
"Greetings, Hulagu," he said. "It gladdens my heart to see you much recovered. Master Hador tells me he is well pleased with you, while his wife is pleased you appreciate her cooking."
Hulagu could only stare at him in mute astonishment.
"I am certain you have much to speak of to my apprentice, sire," said Hador. He led the way out of his workshop followed by his family, the Queen and the Steward.
Hulagu was left alone with the man he belatedly realised was the King. "I am sorry, great lord, I did not know." Hulagu tried to kneel and almost overbalanced. The King hastened to help steady him.
"How could you know?" asked the King. He placed a reassuring hand on Hulagu's shoulder. "I am Aragorn Elessar, king of the Reunited Kingdom, but I was a healer long before I was a king and I still assist the healers when I am able. But tell me, Master Hulagu, how do you fare now?" He gestured to a chair. Hulagu sat and Aragorn took a chair beside him.
Hulagu told him of all that had happened since their last meeting and that although memories and pain troubled him at times, he was well- content with his life with the potter and his family.
"Yet you looked terrified when I sent for you. Why should that be?" asked the King.
"I am happy here, but I once was sworn to the false Lord of Gifts," said Hulagu. "I feared you might see me as an enemy."
"There will soon be a treaty between your people and Gondor," said the King. "Once, though, you said you wanted to swear an oath to a new lord. Do you still wish that?"
"I do," said Hulagu, "with all my heart."
Half an hour or so later, everyone was gathered in Hador's living quarters. Hulagu was frantically trying to memorise the words he was supposed to say.
"Usually, one would kneel to take an oath and swear upon a weapon," said the King, "but you may stand, Hulagu, and as you are not offering military service, we simply clasp hands." He moved to the centre of the room and his Queen came to stand beside him.
Watched by the Steward and Hador and his family, Hulagu offered his right hand which the King grasped as he said , "Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and King of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Hulagu the Easterling."
"And this do I hear, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Lord and High King of Gondor, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: valour with honour, oath-breaking with vengeance; fealty with love." He grasped Hulagu's hands between his own. "Now you are sworn to my service, Master Hulagu, and I am sworn to protect you as if you were born my subject. The past is now behind you and you may dwell within my lands in peace and freedom."
Hulagu's eyes pricked with unshed tears. By binding himself he was at last truly free.
A/n The words of the oath (slightly altered) are taken from "The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien.
Hulagu's culture is loosely based upon that of ancient Mongolia. A Noyan was a military commander or other high ranking official. Tengri was the supreme sky god.