We were young, we were merry, we were very, very wise, And the door stood open at our feast, When there passed us a woman with the West in her eyes, And a man with his back to the East.-Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
The words West and East are often used in the works of Tolkien. Write a story or poem or create an artwork that uses these words as the central focus, whether as cardinals, regions, or as metaphors.
Written for a BTME challenge Prompt
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth! – Kipling
Title: Brothers under the Skin
Author: Linda Hoyland
Characters/Pairing: Aragorn, Faramir, OMC
Warnings: nudity, fleeting mention of mutilation
Book/Source: LOTR book-verse
Disclaimer – These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.
“I cannot see why you are so reluctant to go, Estel,” said Arwen. “It should be a pleasant afternoon for you and Faramir”
“Spending an afternoon without my clothes in the presence of others is not my idea of pleasure,” Aragorn said grimly.
“It is not as if there are ladies present,” said the Queen. “You and Faramir have sometimes bathed together. Why should this be any different? The Ambassador is a good friend to you both.”
“Faramir is different. He is as a son to me and we are as alike as close kindred,” Aragorn replied. “We are thought bonded and respect each other’s privacy.”
Arwen sighed and picked up her needlework. “Never will I understand you Men,” she said. “Your form is most pleasing to the eye, yet always you conceal it beneath your attire. “She held up the garment she was embroidering. “No Elf would wear this in bed, yet you are as fair as any!”
“Since some Elves told mocked me when I was a child, I have kept my clothes on,” said Aragorn. “It has always, in any case, been the custom of our people to cover ourselves. Then as King it is more important to me than ever.”
“Of course the King must keep his dignity,” said Arwen. “But can the Man not relax with his friends?”
“Just then a servant tapped on the door. “Lord Faramir awaits you, my lord,” she said after being told to enter.
“I must go now,” said Aragorn. He picked up his cloak.
“There is no need for you to look as if you were riding off to battle to face hopeless odds!” Arwen chided. “Now if Lady Adiva had invited me to join her in the hamam, I would enjoy it. I am certain once you get there you will have a pleasant afternoon.”
Aragorn embraced her. “I wish I shared your certainty, my love,” he said.
“Must we really do this?” Aragorn lamented to his Steward as they made their way towards the Ambassador’s residence in the sixth circle. “Could not a hoard of Orcs turn up so we could go and fight them instead?”
“I like it no more than you do, mellon nîn, but it would be ill mannered for me to decline the invitation now,” said Faramir. “Tahir is honouring us greatly and for years now has asked me to join him in the hamam. I have run out of excuses. Never did I ever dream that I would count a man of Harad as one of my closest friends, but Tahir has become one and I would not wish to hurt his feelings.”
“I wish he would honour someone else then,” said Aragorn. “Legolas, perhaps. I doubt he would feel so self conscious.”
“Tahir hardly knows Legolas,” Faramir pointed out. “It is he who would feel uncomfortable with an Elf in the hamam. I will go alone if the thought troubles you so much. After all, Tahir is a closer friend to me than to you.”
“I would not abandon you to face the ordeal alone,” Aragorn said resignedly. “It would not do to offend the Ambassador either. We are blessed that we have such a good man to represent Harad. It could easily have been very different.”
And I appreciate your companionship,” said Faramir, clapping Aragorn affectionately on the shoulder. You are familiar with the ways of the East, Aragorn, have you not experienced it before? I believe the hamam is an important part of the culture of Harad.”
“I have so far successfully avoided removing my clothes and roasting myself in front of others,” Aragorn said tetchily. “I could not even if I had cherished so strange a desire. To would have meant instant death as a spy as the Men of the East mutilate and decorate their bodies in ways we Men of the West would never dream of. I have, though, once attended a merchant, whose service I was in for a while. I had to wash his back in the hamam.”
“Was the unfortunate man infirm and unable to perform his own ablutions?” asked Faramir.
“Quite the contrary, but in the East, it is a sign of status to have someone to wash you as well as having the luxury to use water for bathing,” Aragorn explained.
“Why do they mutilate their skins?” Faramir asked.
“I never learned why,” Aragorn replied. “To display too much curiosity would have been unwise. I do not even know if they all do it Surely you know more than I about Tahir as you searched him when he we were unsure of his intentions in Gondor?”
“I only asked him to remove his outer robes. Beneath them he wore close fitting linens that it would have been impossible to conceal a weapon under. At least the Ambassador assured us there would be no attendants so we will not have to undergo the indignity of others scrubbing us,” said Faramir.
The two arrived outside the imposing residence of Ambassador Tahir and his lady. They dismissed their guards when one of Tahir’s servants admitted them and ushered them into the tiled hallway.
Tahir himself came to greet them. “Welcome to my humble abode, esteemed friends,” he exclaimed, embracing them. “You do me great honour by joining me today in the hamam. Afterwards we shall truly be brothers!” Though his welcome was warm, he appeared as ill at ease as his guests. “I know you value your privacy, esteemed friends,” he said. “Therefore my body servant will not bring us the customary sherbet tea while we are in the hamam. I thought we might take refreshments afterwards with my fair blossom.”
“You are most considerate always, my friend,” said Faramir.
Aragorn and Faramir forced themselves to smile. They followed Tahir to the back of his residence feeling as if they were being led to their execution. Aragorn could feel it getting unpleasantly hot as they approached the steam rooms.
Tahir led them first to the disrobing room, which contained several empty shelves and one, which was stacked with fine quality silken cloths. Another shelf held linen towels. “These are peştemal, my friends,” he said, gesturing towards the silken cloths. “You can use them either to cover yourselves, which I believe is your custom, or to lie upon, which is ours. Take freely as many as you desire. You can leave your clothing here on one of the shelves and help yourselves to towels after we have bathed.” He turned his back to his guests and started to undress.
It was so hot that Aragorn was almost relieved to remove his outer clothing. He wrapped several of the silk cloths around his body before discarding his linens. Faramir did likewise, but folded his discarded clothing more carefully. When they turned around to face Tahir, they noticed he was covered from head to foot with only his hands and face visible beneath the silken folds of cloth.
Aragorn and Faramir followed Tahir though an arched doorway into a large room filled with steam. They could just about make out a large marble stone in the centre. At the four corners of the room were fountains which they could hear rather than see clearly.
“We sit or lie on the göbek taşı” said Tahir, leading the way to the stone through clouds of mist.
King and Steward settled themselves down awkwardly on the smooth marble, pulling their silken cloths tightly around themselves. It was not as unbearably hot as Aragorn had feared, but the steam was so dense he could hardly see his hand in front of him.
“I am surprised and honoured that you finally accepted my invitation,” said Tahir. “I know that you Men of the West dislike the heat as well being too modest to enjoy public bathing.”
“That is true,” said Faramir, “We come because, as your friends, we are honoured to share this with you, even though we find the custom strange.”
“You tell me, though, esteemed friend, that you and Lord Aragorn will swim together in the cold river?” said Tahir. “I find that a strange custom too.”
“It is most pleasant when the weather is hot,” said Aragorn.
“I find many of your traditions curious, my friends,” said Tahir. “That you have only one wife most of all. My one fair flower pleases me and has given me many blossoms, but what if a woman is not fruitful? The line of your esteemed ancestors would then be broken.”
“We trust the Higher Powers when we choose one spouse,” said Aragorn. “It is prophesied that the line of Lúthien will never fail. We believe if our lines are meant to thrive then man and wife will be fruitful.”
“East and West are very different,” said Tahir. “Our climate, our food, our rituals.”
“We are all Men, though,” said Faramir. He felt surprisingly relaxed and almost embraced by the clouds of warm steam. Beside him Aragorn no longer sat stiffly, but was stretched out like a sunbathing cat. Faramir discarded most of the peştemal, leaving only one wound around his waist. Aragorn did likewise as the room became ever hotter.
After a while the heat became unbearable and Aragorn mopped his brow with one of his discarded peştemal.
“We should go to the soğukluk now, esteemed friends,” said Tahir. “There you can wash the sweat from your bodies and emerge cleansed and refreshed.”
Aragorn and Faramir felt their apprehension returning. They would have to remove their final peştemal now. They felt so pale and exposed compared to Tahir, while thanks to Elven treatments their skins were unmarked by the scars of battle.
They followed their host into a second, much cooler chamber, which contained a deep marble pool filled with clear water. In the centre, water poured from a great fountain shaped like a horse’s head. The area around the pool was covered with intricately pattered tiles in different hues of fine marble.
To their surprise, now they could see their host clearly, he was still shrouded from head to foot.
Tahir hesitated at the edge, a strange expression upon his face, almost akin to panic. He took a deep breath, turned his back to them and then cast aside his cloths.
Aragorn and Faramir bit back exclamations, despite not wishing to stare; it was impossible not to notice the elaborate markings that covered almost all of Tahir’s back. Some were tattoos, while others were formed by the healed scars of many cuts, not random wounds, but in a regular pattern. The men of Harad Aragorn had seen before had not prepared him for this. They had had only a few such markings compared to Tahir.
“You are curious, esteemed friends?” Tahir turned to face them. His expression suggested that were his skin paler he would be blushing scarlet “The marks on my back were my initiation as a warrior. You were only deemed fit to fight when you did not cry out. Now these tattoos,” he pointed to his right arm, “show that I am a son of the Wakil tribe, and that I have one wife and five children. These here,” he pointed to his legs,” are battles in which I was victorious. The scars from them speak for themselves. The tattoos of my left arm represent my allegiance to the Great Khan. “But these give me the most pride, look!”
Aragorn and Faramir noticed that above his heart was a tattoo of a rising sun, while on his right breast was a representation of Gondor’s White Tree, while the seven stars and a symbol they did not recognise covered his belly. “Those of us who refused to bow down to the Dark Lord bear this mark, rather than the Great Eye,” Tahir explained. “Our enemies knew not what it meant, but it shows that we believed the sun would rise unclouded over our land one day. This symbol of your land I had written on me the day you accepted me as a guest in your realm. This symbol here shows my loyalty to the Great Khan while the stars show my loyalty to you. We bathe only with those whom we trust as our brothers since we reveal our allegiances upon our bodies. I feared you might not find me worthy with your pale and unblemished skins. I have not shared the hamam with any not of my tribe before. Now you are my brothers and fellows of my tribe!” He stepped into the water.
“East and West may be different, but true friendship knows no bounds,” said Faramir. “We are all Men. We bear no markings on our skin, but carry all ours on our clothing. We are proud to be your brothers too.” He cast aside his peştemal and entered the water. Aragorn did likewise.
No longer ill at ease they splashed around happily with Tahir, former enemies who had become as dear as brothers.
A/n According to my research steam baths were popular in the ancient world. Tahir’s haman is meant to share some features with an ancient Roman or modern Turkish bath,but is not meant to be identical to it, but something unique to the culture of Harad,though I have used Turkish terms. Tahir’s tattoos are inspired by Viggo’s in “Eastern Promises”.
Haman – Turkish bath
Curated with permission from author