Steward and the King, The
They had tried the mountain pass and had been defeated, and so would go under the mountains through the ancient tunnels and halls of Moria. They had skirted a dark, forbidding pool in order to reach the doors. Bill refused to enter, and Gandalf agreed the lightless halls were no place for ponies. It was difficult for Sam to say goodbye. In the dark entrance hall Gandalf lit his staff, and in the dim light they pulled the doors closed, and the same magic as upon opening, brought it the last inches shut and they could see no seam. Abandoned luggage and saddlebags were also left outside, but it was the loss of the pony Sam minded most. "I don't like this place," he sniffed, still staring at the door as if trying to see his friend through the stone.
"At least snow can not follow us here," Pippin muttered.
"Up the stairs and keep close," Gandalf said.
Travel in the dark was a long and difficult journey. Near the entrance there were a few shafts, Gandalf said, to let in sunlight, but it was night above so they were no help. The floor was mostly smooth, but fallen stones or sudden cracks could appear at any moment, and there seemed little way to mark distance traveled. Even with echoes that spoke of vast halls and empty space, the deep dark closed in on them and all speech was at a whisper. They walked the rest of the night away and into the day.
In the mid morning the company took a brief halt, sitting at the edge of the broad dark way that was their road. Gandalf laid his staff down in the center of their rough circle, its faint glow illuminating their faces. They had traveled far enough inwards that there were no shafts to let the light down for the mountain roof was too tall, though the roof of the road had been cut very high to encourage air to move. The hobbits, the most weary, leaned against the wall. Gimli was next to Gandalf and Legolas sat on the other side.
Sam helped Pippin adjust his pack and knocked loose one of the hard cheeses from the jumble at top. Aragorn caught and handed it back and Pippin thanked him.
Faramir was close enough to hear the name he used. " 'Strider'," he repeated, a short grunt of a laugh. He had not heard the name in several days, and now it had new meaning.
"I have many names," Aragorn replied. There was a smile in his voice.
"At least in Rohan they gave you a name of more dignity."
"You've been to Rohan?" Merry asked.
"And Gondor. I know Faramir's city well. I have been fighting the Shadow for long years."
"As men count years," said Legolas.
"There are many generations from Isildur to now," answered Faramir.
"Where Isildur was wrong, I will do as I can to make right, yet remembering the lesson of Osgiliath."
"A great city now in ruins."
"Not the Enemy, Gondor itself. It was the Kinstrife."
"The Stewards rule in Gondor," said Frodo slowly. "That's your father, Faramir?"
"Very good," said Gandalf. "You understand the difficulty."
"It would not be well for me in my own name to return to Minas Tirith unasked."
"My dream was the asking," said Faramir, his voice troubled.
"You said your father didn't want you to go to Rivendell."
"He may not agree with the answer you found."
"No. He won't."
Said Gimli, "I think it would be hard for any Man or Dwarf, once having power, to yield it to another."
They sat in silence for several minutes more, then Gandalf declared the halt over.
They walked in silence. The strange conversation had given Aragorn much to ponder.
How do I untangle such a knot? And how do I take up my inheritance if I do not? All these years there have been only a few who were privy to my hopes. Father and his children, Gandalf, Halbarad. It was a grief to mother, and she died never reconciled. I am surprised Bilbo dug the story out of me; I am glad for his friendship and support. He gives my lady reason to smile, with his silly stories and curious questions while he himself worries more and more. Mostly I have kept to the counsel of my own thoughts. I can stay hidden no longer.
Aragorn reviewed his companions' reactions. Pippin did not understand. Sam was unsure but would follow Frodo's lead. Frodo and Merry were putting matters together. As they said in Bree, this was "Big People business". Aragorn wondered how such a conversation would run its course there. Probably with blank stares and polite excuses and Barliman angry at him for emptying the common room.
Power and possession. Scrape away the words and hopes, that was what was at the bottom of his quest. Power, possession and change. The harbingers of war. Who would want that in his lifetime?
Legolas and Gimli had witnessed such in the lands surrounding the Lonely Mountain: the conflicting purposes of elves and men and dwarves. Their fathers had been opponents on that field of battle. Gimli was born soon before or after Smaug took the mountain, scattering the dwarves that lived there. He had been an exile who had returned to his homeland. He understood, and his words seemed to be a friendly caution: Aragorn should not hope for more than he could obtain. The Ruling Stewards were no Smaug -- those who ruled in Gondor were not a family of evil dragons that needed to be driven out.
Aragorn shook his head, not knowing how he could explain to the dwarf. The blood of Elendil did not flow in Gimli's veins. Gimli did not know of Arwen and the impossibility of Aragorn giving up that hope. As he said, Sauron first, which would be another sign. It was no little thing ... but Arwen was certain, and with her hope he would hope.
And Faramir was again pacing beside him, sharing the end of the line. He wanted to be close, though he did not seek to speak.
I do not know if he accepts the silence we all walk in, or is annoyed I say nothing. It is right we are silent. I had hoped we would not take this path. There was a sense of danger at the back of his mind. Or is it that I do not like how the darkness calls to mind that which I have set aside? No. I felt this dread in the light; before we began this path.
But that choice had already been made. He could do naught but stay alert. So as he watched the stone way before him, he considered the matter of kingship. He had recognized Faramir as kin of the Steward when he had entered Elrond's council, by reason of his clothing, his face and his bearing. Although Gandalf had alerted him to take special note of Faramir, it had been hard to say whether the wizard was surprised or not. He seemed to have been curious rather than anxious about the potential for confrontation, nor would he share much of his thoughts with Aragorn afterwards.
Aragorn had a much more personal reaction. His sword, his name -- they were a claim on the throne of Gondor, and while Faramir, at the Council, had spoken of difficulties connected with the appearance of that claim, he had not at all disputed it. Rather, he had spoken of the naming of Elendil as being a matter of hope.
I had not expected that of a son of Denethor. It was a matter that wanted discussion, but he thought it unwise to do so while still in Elrond's house. Neither had Faramir sought him out. Faramir was far removed from his father's center of power; it would be better, Aragorn reasoned, to speak in more neutral surroundings. But he needed to be certain in his own mind first.
Aragorn walked next to the young man. His presence was another sign, both hopeful and hard. How many other people were sent signs who did nothing, were selfish? Faramir had not known what the dream would send him to find. He came north, he asked ... and though he did not shirk from the answer, there were others that would. That is his honor. The loyalty he gives me is not unwon. By my blood, by the years in the wild I have toiled, and I have Elrond's support. The tokens of my heritage were left in his care. There were signs enough that the Valar wanted this, that Sauron must be brought down and this was the way to that end. If the victory would be real, it must be in all people's hearts to keep it long and faithful, for many lives of men, that peace and happiness return.
Still, though the crown might be mine to take, I would rather cause those who will be my people to want to give. I do not want to come between Faramir and his family for less cause. He does as he should, yet he surely will be paid in pain. Yet how else can anyone be tested, if not by sacrifice? Did Denethor know, did the oath tell him, was he wrong to look on me as enemy, or did I do wrong by hiding myself? That was a question Aragorn rolled about and tore apart in his mind to consider every aspect. There was no sign. Love is not a sign, Elrond declaring an impossible task is not a sign. If it was only on me to go south and speak aloud my claim, then it would have been the same for my father and his fathers. It was my test to see and learn and not speak until the Powers spoke first: the stirring of Sauron, the finding of the Ring, Faramir's dream. He laughed silently, without humor. Denethor would not admit those signs. To all of this, he would answer that all free peoples must fight, and all owed to Gondor because Gondor was the first defense.
And his son has all but sworn his oath to me. In his heart it is already said. My first subject? Aragorn's eyes were wary on the floor under his feet. How do I feel about that? Faramir is thirty-five years old, already battle-tested. Leading attacks. At that age, though I had left the North, I had still been a student, learning the ways of men, after being raised among Eldar. In Rohan Theoden, son of Thengel, was learning the spear. It was another few years before Thorongil began his service in Rohan. From there he went to Gondor to serve Ecthelion. The crown is mine to inherit, by Gondor's own laws. I swore an oath to one who held my land in stewardship, but any heir must first be subordinate to him who rules before him, in order to learn his duties.
Gimli had the right of it. Denethor would not want to yield. Rather, he would resist and demand reasons. What must I need show beyond proof of my lineage to gain what I seek? It is mine by right.
In his memory he walked in Minas Tirith. In the court before the citadel, there was a tree long dead. The white tower, the mountain behind, the walls of stone, the great gate, the broad empty streets. Fear smothered his city, he could well imagine how the darkness from Mordor would have diminished it further in the years since. My city was not for death, he vowed. I would have it healed. Yet Denethor held Minas Tirith as his own.
Is it mine? Aragorn asked himself. Yes, his heart answered. Then what of the Steward? His eyes hardened. If he break his Oath, the Oath will break him.
The day's marches had been long and tiring. They had walked half or more of the length of the city, and Gandalf was unsure of their exact location. It was time for rest. A room was chosen, and they prepared themselves for sleep.
Faramir put his roll next to Aragorn's. "You have been quiet."
"I usually am."
"What does History tell you?"
"The same as you." His voice was clipped. "Blood. Pain. Occasional victories."
Faramir obviously disliked that tone. "You are called to return. How do we make that victory?"
Aragorn laughed. It was an unpleasant sound. "You forget what lurks in Mordor. It was fear of Sauron that sent you to find me. That will be my proof. Isildur's Heir must right Isildur's wrong. Denethor will expect me to fail. Though he would, I think, accept a victory that came at the cost of my life. We can base a truce on that."
"Why should you -- "
Faramir's indignant complaint was cut short. Not by any word or gesture from Aragorn, but by a sudden stab of pain deep within. I may not speak to my King this way!
Aragorn was thankful for the sudden silence. He considered his words. He needed to sleep, but it would be better to speak now than let this continue. "Thank you, Faramir. For your sake, you should pretend to be skeptical. I appreciate your support, but Denethor now rules and he will cast you out, I fear."
Faramir made no answer, to Aragorn's concern. He would have to deal with this. Maybe in the light of day they could find balance. Once in Gondor, dissension could be fatal. Faramir loved his father; yet all that he had said made it clear Denethor's manner had not changed since becoming Steward. He was dangerous when his anger was roused.
The next day was marches again. When it came to evening the doorways and halls multiplied again, to either side, and their path was again unsure. They chose a place against the corridor wall to sleep. When it was morning outside, they would have the additional help of faint light coming down the shafts, and so find their way out of the darkness.
With the light, they found Balin's tomb. It was a sorrow to Gimli and a warning to Aragorn. These dwarves attempted to return from generations in exile and were all of them killed.
Therefore, would my return be likewise futile? ... but that was only a passing thought. The sense of danger returned. There was danger here for them all, but especially Gandalf.
We depend too much on him, the light of his staff, his knowledge to find the doors. At the front he is most vulnerable. They will catch us! Fear rose in him. The halls had been too long silent, the peace was deceptive; this was the silence before an ambush. Be ready!
When the orc attack came in the Tomb, Gandalf stood at the front with staff and sword. At the head of the stairs, he covered their retreat, defending the doors. Then, already weary, he barred the bridge, but what approached was too much.
It had been cat and mouse, and they had been the hunted ones. They got the door blocked behind them, Balin's tomb buried by falling rock, but there were more orcs before them. Moria had many halls but few exits. The orcs knew ways they knew not. And Moria was also home to an older evil: Durin's Bane.
The Balrog was beyond their strength.
And it was Aragorn's destiny that fell into the dark with Gandalf, as he and Faramir ran back across the crumbling bridge. "Run, run!" he called to the others, and as they ran to the outer gates and they cut down the few guards at that door he felt the loss.
At first it was a small, fluttering thing against the rage, fear and confusion, all clambering for attention with the needs of battle and searching for new danger amid the sun-lit rocks outside the door. It was early morning. Down, down they had to run. Orcs will follow, come nightfall. Where now? Down, down. Had anyone stumbled? Count them! Four children are here, two and two. They cannot run this pace for long. Dwarf, tall man and tall elf, and that is seven.
Gandalf has fallen into darkness, and into darkness all my hope. Aragorn's grief overwhelmed him, and then what it meant crashed down upon him and he could not breathe. His feet slowed and the others cast themselves onto the ground, weeping; Moria's gates were far out of sight above them. "It falls to me, then, all that was his to do," he whispered making the words an oath, though spoken too low for any to hear. "It is Gandalf I will mourn," he willed the other grief to silence, "not wife, nor crown."
A few minutes he gave them, then got them up, setting a pace somewhat slower for they must cover many miles before the sunlight failed.
"My lord, what now will we do?" asked Faramir, who had wept as if it were his father he had seen die.
"We continue," Aragorn answered. As the signs showed him, he would take the path. It would be Gandalf and he that would pay the price for Saruman's treachery.
=== end chapter ===
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.