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Water and Stone: 16. Love
Celinn hated this rule as he hated having to work close to others. The other elves on duty at the gate tried to speak to him but he only replied when it was unavoidable, spending most of his time shrouded in his cloak at some distance from the others. He also hated seeing Aiglin, Luinil and Gwirith waiting for him at the guardroom, and if he could not avoid speaking to them he would sullen and monosyllabic or, if pushed too far, furiously angry with them.
Although Aiglin and Luinil persisted, Gwirith stopped coming to the guardroom after the first day and avoided the gate during the hours that Celinn was on duty. This meant he could also stay away from Haldir, who would not accept Gwirith’s intuition that this was not the time for him to open his heart to Celinn, and quarrelled with him whenever they met. Instead he spent long hours in his workshop.
Every moment that he was awake, and many of those when he walked the path of dream, he was aware of Celinn, whether he was close or far away, and the effort it cost him to keep away from him and to continue to carry the burden of his oath began to tell on him. He used the skills Galadriel and Celeborn had taught him to endure the difficulties of this time, even while hoping that it would soon be over.
But his greatest fear was not that he would break under his burden, but that Celinn would. It was only his trust in Galadriel and Celeborn and his faith in the Valar and the One which gave him the strength to walk this path blindly while taking every breath in pain and longing.
On this particular morning, about a week after Celinn’s return from north Lorien, he had forgotten that Celinn was on a different duty and had seen him as he left the guardroom after finishing his watch at the gate. Even though Celinn did not speak to him or even acknowledge his presence, the discordant vibration of his tortured fea had shaken Gwirith so much that he had abandoned his journey to get some supplies from the guardroom workshop and had walked straight through the gate and into the forest.
Although the snow was still on the ground, it was a little warmer, and the sky was a clear bright blue. Gwirith walked for some time without noticing his surroundings, but at last the breathing life of the forest touched him and he began to see the sunlight shining through the golden leaves of the mellryn and the other trees. Now that he was here, he could look out for some good wood. Despite the shadow on his heart, he began to enjoy the beauty of the morning and kicked his way through the drifts of russet leaves from the oaks and beeches that grew around the mellryn.
Out here in the forest, far from Caras Galadhon, he marvelled anew at the force of the love that even now powered the blood that pulsed through his veins and made his heart leap with joy. He knew that what he felt for Celinn was as the spark of life within his very cells, and he thanked the Valar for waking him to the glory of this life that he had forgotten.
Surprising himself, Gwirith began to sing out loud, a song of midsummer in the middle of winter, of joy in the midst of pain.
Then, between one note and another, he fell suddenly silent. As if his strong yearning had affected the very energy around him and invoked the image of his beloved, he saw Celinn appear in the distance, walking slowly with the help of his staff. Gwirith shrank back behind the trunk of a mallorn, torn between taking the chance to see him and fearing to intrude on his solitude. He would watch for a moment, then decide what to do.
Carefully Celinn made his way down a shallow incline to where a tiny rivulet ran sparkling along the forest floor, then sat down on a flat stone at its edge. Gwirith saw him lean over and trail his fingers in the water for a moment before suddenly wincing and straightening up, his hand pressed to his side. So sensitive was Gwirith at that moment to Celinn that he felt an echo of pain from the old knife wound in Celinn’s side ripple though the air towards him.
Gwirith’s hands tingled. He looked down at them, knowing they wanted to ease Celinn’s pain. A note sounded within him: maybe this was the time. He stood up and stepping out from behind the mallorn, walked through the crisp leaf mould towards Celinn.
Celinn did not turn to see who was coming towards him. He carried no weapons so was completely vulnerable to anything or anyone who might choose to attack him. Gwirith shivered involuntarily at the thought and walked a wide circle so that Celinn could see him approach, and, feeling for the edge of Celinn’s tolerance, he knelt down at a little distance from him.
‘Well met, Celinn,’ he said and looked into his face.
Celinn’s eyes were dull and lifeless and yet there was a wild spark in them. He turned slightly towards Gwirith but said nothing, trailing his fingers in the water again. Gwirith listened to the voice of the stream for a while, then said, ‘The music of the One is in the water. It reminds me of the time I first heard you sing, on Midsummer night.’
Celinn turned away abruptly. ‘The voice of the water calls you, Celinn,’ said Gwirith, watching him.
‘It calls me,’ said Celinn hoarsely, ‘but it cannot reach me. I should have another name now, because the music of the water and the music of my own voice are lost to me. I cannot bear my name now that I am no longer who I was.’
Gwirith heard these words with pain, but he tried to open himself to contain them, counting each breath he took to keep his heart strong and calm. When he had counted more than fifty, Celinn said suddenly,
‘You are the only one who wants nothing of me, Gwirith. I speak my deepest grief to you and you sit with me in silence, accepting I am exactly as I am. You do not try to change me or show me another way: you do nothing but listen without judgment.’ He turned then, and Gwirith was dazzled by his sea green eyes.
‘There is peace with you, Gwirith,’ Celinn said, sighing, ‘and I am grateful to you for it.’
Gwirith smiled at him briefly, then looked away a moment. When he turned back his face was calm and composed.
‘Maybe with you I find the only peace I have,’ Celinn went on, half to himself. ‘When I am alone there is a sort of peace, but it is like the silence after much noise and interruption: a relief, but empty. With you there seems to be something in the silence, though I don’t know what it could be.’
Gwirith breathed steadily, letting his heart open to the powerful feelings inspired in him by Celinn’s words, but seeking to do nothing but let Celinn be just as he was in this moment.
‘You are different from the others, Gwirith,’ Celinn went on. ‘Aiglin sees only my unhealed body: my lame leg, the scar on my face; and my reserve. Luinil longs for a love I cannot give him, and Haldir blames himself for what I endured. But you: you look at me and you see … I don’t know what you see, but whatever it is, you do not wish to change it. I feel at ease because there is nothing you want of me,’ he repeated, ‘nothing that I must change to make you happy.’
‘I am glad of that,’ said Gwirith. ‘It is a precious thing to rest in the company of another.’
‘There is little rest for me now that Haldir has hedged me about with his orders,’ said Celinn sombrely. ‘I know why he does it, Gwirith,’ he said, turning a little towards him. ‘He and Aiglin are afraid that without them I would leave Caras Galadhon. He knows I would not break the oath I took to him as Guardian. I have broken too many oaths already.’
‘It is because they love you, Celinn, that they will not let you go easily,’ said Gwirith.
‘They call it love, Gwirith,’ said Celinn. ‘But it feels like hate. Do you know what it is like to be surrounded by others when your deepest longing is to be alone, in silence?’
‘I remember it very well,’ said Gwirith. ‘Three centuries I spent in south Lorien far from all except the creatures of the forest. There were times when I saw no other speaking being for years on end.’ Gwirith’s eyes gazed far into the distance as if he looked again on that time. ‘It felt like balm to my wounded fea, the only way that I could remain in life,’ he said softly. Then he turned and looked directly at Celinn. ‘But at last my heart became a stone, cold and lifeless. You know how I was when I first joined your company, Celinn; it is you who have taught me that I could open my heart again, even though I feared the pain I had suffered so much that I dared not risk it again, even at the cost of all joy; you and Haldir and Luinil and the Lady taught me this.’
Celinn looked at him without emotion.
‘I would give you back the lesson that you taught me, Celinn,’ said Gwirith, unable to keep back the words. ‘I would see you healed.’
‘Your heart is healing, Gwirith,’ said Celinn, gently, as if he had not heard him. ‘You will find someone who cares for you. You will be happy again.’ Gwirith’s heart leapt within him at these words but he kept his countenance.
‘And your heart, Celinn?’ he asked, trembling inwardly. ‘Will you be happy again?’
‘I cannot feel my heart any more, Gwirith,’ he answered quietly. ‘I am no good to anyone now, as far as love is concerned, neither heart nor body.’ He fell silent, gazing into the forest. After a while he said, ‘Before … this happened, I used to wish for the day when my heart would finally be touched by another. I loved my friends, and I knew the pleasures of a warrior’s comfort. But never had the deepest love of my heart and the desire of my body been joined in a single person. I thought the day would come when I would know who was to be my love, to whom I would be bound for always. But now I cannot even remember what it felt like to long for that day. And because my heart is cold, I cannot even weep for its loss.’
Gwirith drew in a sharp breath. Celinn glanced at him and saw the tears on his cheeks.
‘Then let me weep for you,’ he said quietly, wiping his face with the palms of his hands.
Celinn regarded him calmly. ‘I wish I could feel your sympathy, Gwirith, and give you some warmth in return. But I have none. There is no fire left in me, neither here,’ he said, laying his hand over his heart, ‘nor here.’ His hand rested lightly between his legs.
‘I do not think I can ever be healed of what he did to me. Since the day he violated me and entered my body against my will, it is as if he broke me open and I can never mend, never again close the door to whatever may wish to force its way in, hroa or fea. My only safety is to keep everything out, although it is the safety of a prison or a dungeon. And when he cut my hair …’ Celinn paused for a long time, his eyes distant as if he had forgotten where he was. Then he went on, ‘After he had raped me, Gwirith, I would not have believed anything could be worse, but when he cut my hair, it was as if he had unmade me, removed my sex and all that was alive and fruitful about me, separated me forever from the One who blesses the elves with their hair, and from my kin and my company, whose braids I wore.’ Celinn’s voice had sunk to a whisper and his eyes were dark pools of shadow in his white face. ‘I think that is why I yielded to him. My fea was already broken. My body was worthless. I belonged to no one any more. So why not yield? I had nothing left to keep.’
‘Celinn,’ he said, longing to comfort him and resting his hand gently on his arm, but Celinn pulled away.
‘Even were I to find peace,’ Celinn went on, bitterly, ‘I could never again know the pleasures of the body. I could never give pleasure to another, because now I am only dust and putrefaction. I cannot bear the touch of my hand on my own skin, and I can never wash away the filth that has entered me, and made me like it, impure and corrupted. I have tried, Gwirith,’ he said, looking up at him, ‘but I cannot do it. Sometimes when I am alone at night,’ he said, and his face took on a haunted look, ‘I feel him there with me, inside me. My body remembers, even when my mind does not. Although he is dead, it is as if he were still there before me, and that he will never let me go, until the end of Arda itself. Gwirith, I cannot endure it. I can scarcely endure a day of it, let alone the ages of the world filled with this torment. What life is this, shrunk to nothing better than a few moments’ freedom from pain?’
‘If there were one who did love you, heart and body, Celinn,’ said Gwirith, ‘maybe that would help you heal.’
‘Luinil loves me,’ said Celinn. ‘Heart and body, as you have named it. Even when I was still whole, my heart did not answer. It would be wickedness to accept his or anyone’s love without being able to return it.’
‘There are some who would love you even without any hope of return,’ said Gwirith in a muffled voice.
‘Then I am sorry for them,’ said Celinn, quietly, ‘because their love must come to nothing with me.’
Gwirith looked down at his hands and fought back the tears he did not want Celinn to see.
Celinn fell silent and for a long time gazed sightlessly into the water. The sky had clouded over and it looked as if it might snow.
‘Shall I make a fire, Celinn?’ said Gwirith, suddenly needing to be doing something practical. ‘I have some lembas if you are hungry and some water in my flask.’
Celinn shrugged. Gwirith got up and collected some wood and kindling, then built a pyramid of twigs and brushwood and lit it with his flints. It caught quickly and he fed it small sticks and then larger ones until it was well established. Celinn had not paid any attention to him, but now he turned very slightly towards the fire.
Gwirith took the lembas out of his pocket but Celinn refused it, only drinking a little water. Silence fell again and Gwirith sat shrouded in sadness, calling in his mind on Galadriel and on Elbereth to give him strength. Suddenly Celinn began to speak again.
‘Some days I am mad,’ he said, in a voice Gwirith scarcely recognised. ‘I am back in that place and I feel the ropes binding me. Though I struggle to see what is before my eyes, that day is more real to me, and my life is as insubstantial as a dream. Then I lose myself, and I do not know where I go. There is darkness and cold, and I am lonely and far from any comfort I have ever known. And then I return, but even then I am lost, because the one I was died on that day I broke my oath, and now I am no-one. Even before the Valar there can be no healing, because I have lost my self, so how can I ask forgiveness for one who no longer exists?’
Gwirith clenched his fists so tightly that he felt his nails cut into the palms of his hands, but he welcomed the pain. His lips moved silently as he called again on Elbereth.
‘Even if the impossible happened and my heart woke,’ said Celinn unsteadily, ‘and I longed for another to love me, to walk the dark road back to life from the brink of Mandos, to learn again the comfort and the ecstasy of another’s touch, there is no-one who would want me now.’
Gwirith’s heart leapt again and he opened his mouth to speak, but Celinn went on.
‘If any were to love me, in time he would come to regard me with hatred and disgust. My body is broken and useless; I am disfigured; defiled. I disgust even myself.’
‘Celinn,’ said Gwirith, his voice trembling. ‘If only you could hear from me how beautiful you are.’ He reached out and tenderly touched the scar on Celinn’s face. ‘The harm that has been done to you makes your true beauty even stronger than before. You are not disfigured, my dear, but fair indeed.’
But neither Gwirith’s words nor his touch reached Celinn. ‘You are my friend, Gwirith,’ he said, turning away from him. ‘You say this to comfort me because you are kind.’
‘No,’ protested Gwirith, but Celinn said, in a voice suddenly harsh,
‘Before Elbereth herself, I pray the day never comes when another longs for me with love.’
‘Why do you say such a thing?’ whispered Gwirith, after a long silence.
Celinn turned to him, and his eyes were bleak. ‘I could not carry the guilt of it,’ he said. ‘Already Luinil has been hurt by loving me, and I was whole then. Now any who tried to come close to me would find only grief and pain as their portion. It would be better that no one should know me than that I hurt all those who come near. Am I not already forsworn and dishonoured? Do I need to blacken my name even further in the sight of the gods? I am glad you do not love me, Gwirith,’ he said, so softly that Gwirith had to lean closer to hear him. ‘I do not think I could bear it if you did.’
Slowly the colour drained from Gwirith’s face, but Celinn had turned away again and did not see. For a moment Gwirith felt faint and had to push his hands hard on to the earth to regain his composure. It seemed as if all the hopes he had carried had been smashed to pieces before his very eyes.
Gwirith stood up abruptly and moved away from Celinn, filled with despair and anger in equal measure. He wanted to curse all those who had taught him to open his heart again and brought him to this moment of intolerable pain. He could feel it now in his chest, and he gasped and pressed his hand to his heart. All at once all tenderness left him and he wanted to rage at Celinn, to force him to see that the biggest obstacle to his healing was his own unwillingness.
He stood a little distance from Celinn, shuddering with the power of the anger and grief running through him, while at the same time aware in his whole being of Celinn’s fea, dark with pain and despair.
‘Lady, help me,’ he whispered, eyes tightly closed. ‘I can’t let him go. I am full of anger and hatred. I will hurt him. Help me.’ At first nothing happened, but then he heard music in the far distance, and a touch on his fea, gentle as summer. ‘Don’t close your heart, Gwirith,’ Galadriel’s voice said quietly in his mind. ‘Feel the anger and the hatred. It is part of your love. They are one. Let it breathe in you. Feel it and love him still.’ He thought he heard her joyful laughter, and the fragrance of summer was all around him. Then she was gone.
Gwirith sighed deeply and opened his eyes. He felt the energy of his anger and grief in his body, but now it was spiralling down through him and out into the earth. He stood motionless and waited until it had left him, and felt the soft ringing silence that it left behind it. Then his heart opened and he knew love had never left it.
Gwirith turned back to Celinn and saw him sitting with his head bowed. He walked over and knelt at a little distance.
‘Celinn,’ he said gently, though his heart shook with terror within him, ‘Whatever it is you need to do, I am with you. If you wish for a friend for the years the Valar gives us, I am your friend. If you need to be alone, I will leave you to your solitude. If you wish to go far from Caras Galadhon and want a companion, I will walk beside you, or if you travel alone, I will wish you well when your journey begins and look for the day of your return. And if you can no longer stay in life, and long for Mandos or the Undying Lands, I will wait with you until your fea leaves your hroa, or I will let you go alone wherever you wish to go. I swear this, by the name of Elbereth the best beloved and Ulmo of the waters.’ He cupped his hand in the stream and filled it with water, then poured it over his head so that it trickled down over his brow and his face and his lips parted to taste it.
Celinn did not move and gave no sign that he had heard him, but there was a change in the air between them. There was a long silence, and Gwirith felt Galadriel’s touch on his fea, holding him firm.
Then a shaft of sunlight fell onto Celinn from a space in the canopy, and Gwirith’s heart broke at the beauty of the uncovered nape of his neck, vulnerable without the glory of his hair to cover it. Celinn sighed and covered his face with his hands. It was a small gesture but one so eloquent of despair that Gwirith could not hold back any longer and in an instant had closed the small space between them.
His voice as he spoke the name of his beloved held and sounded all that was in his heart.
After a long, long moment Celinn lifted his head and brought his hands away from his face.
Gwirith had expected tears but what he saw was infinitely worse. The darkness of utter hopelessness, beyond any weeping, was in Celinn’s eyes. He looked dazed, as though he barely recognised him, and Gwirith’s mind fled back to the moment he had raised Celinn’s head and seen that same look after Adanwath’s using and mutilation of him in the forest.
‘Celinn,’ he said again, with desperate pleading. His hand came up and rested gently on Celinn’s cheek, warm against the cold flesh. He willed his spirit to touch Celinn in the dark place where he was lost, but Celinn closed his eyes and made to turn away from him. Gwirith’s arm came up then, and curved round Celinn’s shoulder, offering him shelter and comfort. For a long time Celinn did not respond at all. Then all at once his shoulders drooped and with a shuddering little sigh, he brought his head down to rest within Gwirith’s arm.
Gwirith held him to his breast, holding him as father might hold his son, holding him also as a lover holds his beloved. His hand moved from Celinn’s cheek and gently traced the shape of his head, then came to rest over the tender exposed nape of his neck, seeking to warm and cover it.
For a long time they remained so, Celinn breathing gently in Gwirith’s arms, so gently that Gwirith thought he might have fallen asleep. For Gwirith in that hour time no longer existed: he was where he had most longed to be, and he would not now think ahead to what this touch might mean to them both. Instead he dwelt in the bliss of holding his beloved in his arms, intoxicated by the feel, the sound, the scent of him against his skin. Gently he bent down and pressed a single kiss on Celinn’s shorn head, and his fingers made tiny caressing movements on his shoulder.
The sun was beginning to sink when Celinn sighed and stirred in Gwirith’s arms. He sat up and looked around him, blinking a little as if he did not know where he was. He turned towards Gwirith, frowning, and for a long time he looked at him, and it seemed that he was trying to understand something that was just out of reach.
Then he said, ‘I think I had a dream, Gwirith. I was bound tightly, suffering but unable to move; then a voice spoke to me, and I was free. My bonds were broken and I stepped out of them and saw them in pieces around my feet, and I walked away from them. Some power had broken my bonds and I was whole again. And I was safe, somewhere safe, but not a prison, not a dungeon.’ Celinn smiled for the first time since before his ordeal, and Gwirith’s heart contracted within him.
Then fear came into Celinn’s eyes, and he struggled to his feet, almost in a panic. His voice shook slightly as he said,
‘I must go.’
He tilted his head and looked at Gwirith sidewise, as though he would say something else, but seemed to think better of it. Then he took up his staff and turned towards Caras Galadhon. Gwirith watched him until he was out of sight. He stayed completely motionless, his arms empty, cold with the shock of it. After a while he sat back on his heels, his eyes staring at nothing, his heart thudding with pain. He turned his head and looked at his arms, as if unable to believe that Celinn had been within them just minutes ago. He did not know how long he stayed there, but all at once he was overcome by a wave of terror so powerful that he felt physically sick. His body began to shake and he had to lie down on the grass to stave off the sudden dizziness that blurred his sight and made his ears ring. He had no idea what was happening to him or why he had suddenly been overcome by this infirmity, and in desperation he pressed his hands to the ground and whispered the name of Elbereth, once, twice, numberless times. He felt tears leaking from his eyes and heard his breath coming in shaking gasps. The stars swung above him, and he closed his eyes against their mighty compass.
And then he knew. His arms were empty, suddenly empty. They had been empty once before, on the day Alcarion had died. He had died in Gwirith’s arms, and the other elves had taken his body away, thinking to help, but Gwirith had been unable to move, sitting freezing and bloody in the cold of another winter dusk, sick with the terror and agony of his loss. This was the memory that had been buried deep in his body for three centuries, pushed so far down that he had forgotten it; had closed his heart against it and against love itself for fear of that agony being repeated. And here he was back in that moment, as though the intervening years had never taken place.
Gwirith turned on his side and covering his head with his arms, he sobbed as if Alcarion had died this very night. Tears that he had never wept burst from him, and he heard himself give voice to inarticulate sounds of grief. He raged against Alcarion’s death, cursing Mandos for taking him, cursing Alcarion for leaving, and Haldir for sending them out to fight on that day. And at last he cursed himself for being unable to save him.
Finally the storm of grief died down, and he lay, empty of feeling, the ground hard beneath him. He was aware of his hands clenched into fists pressed against his eyes, and slowly he willed them to relax and his fingers to uncurl.
At last he sat up, resting his head – when had it become so heavy? – on his knees. He had travelled so far that he could not remember what he was doing here, out in the forest in the darkness.
But then there was a breath of wind and a faint scent rose from his clothes, a familiar potent scent … Celinn. Gwirith shuddered as his body remembered the feel of his beloved close to him, and within him a struggle was joined between the sweet ecstasy of that memory and the terror of the loss he had experienced. He groaned out loud at the impossibility of it all, tormented by the yearning of his heart for Celinn and the equally strong imperative to have nothing more to do with love, which could destroy that vulnerable heart in an instant. For three centuries he had kept himself safe, barricaded himself against feeling that intolerable pain. How had he allowed himself to love again? How could he have forgotten the terrible price of caring for another?
Tears squeezed out from between his closed eyelids, and he felt them running between his fingers on to his knees. He could not love Celinn, he knew that now, it was too dangerous. He was foolish to have dreamed of it.
But after a long time his heart slowed, and the pain became bearable. His love was still there, unchanged, in his blood and his body. For a moment he closed his eyes and knew again the feel of Celinn in his arms. A wisp of his scent came to him: yes, his scent was here, on his clothes. He had really been here.
Gwirith stood up. He stowed away the precious time he had had much as he had stowed Celinn’s blond hair within his clothes. He felt tears prickling at the corner of his eyes, but he shook his head, forcing the sadness away.
He began to walk back towards Caras Galadhon, and the words of the oath he had taken before Elbereth vibrated in his heart. Yes, there was pain, agonising pain. But at least he was alive. He would not let his heart become stone again. His oath was made in water, and he would flow like water wherever this love took him, from the rivers of Lorien to Anduin the Great himself, if he was called to do so.
With amazement he found that he was happy again, and took up his song where he had left it as he walked back in the darkness to Caras Galadhon.
Rumil ran after Celinn as he walked away from the gate at the end of his duty, a creased and stained piece of parchment in his hand.
‘Celinn, this is for you,’ he said. ‘From Aragorn. One of the Dunedain passed it on to me.’
Celinn looked at the parchment for a long time, then said dully,
‘Give it to someone else.’
‘But it is for you!’ said Rumil, but Celinn was already walking away. Rumil sighed deeply, looking at Aragorn’s untidy script on the front of the letter, then went into the guardroom. The door to the workshop was open and he saw Gwirith sitting at the table, working on a bow.
‘Gwirith,’ he said, holding out the parchment to him. ‘I do not know what to do with this.’
‘But…it is for Celinn,’ said Gwirith, surprised.
‘He would not take it,’ said Rumil. ‘We cannot leave it unanswered. Would you read it and write to Aragorn in Celinn’s stead? Orophin’s company is going out of Lorien next: they will take it.’
‘If you wish it,’ said Gwirith, breaking the seal and beginning to read.
‘My dear Celinn,’ wrote Aragorn. ‘I cannot tell you where I am in case my letter to you is intercepted, but if I tell you that the inhabitants of this place are sullen and dark, you may be able to guess for yourself. This is of some benefit since I am dark myself and can be sullen when required to be, and I am therefore less conspicuous here than I might be elsewhere.
My guide is familiar with this land which is already known for its trouble and secrecy, but he says the shadow increases here, and touches other lands also, maybe some which we had not thought were close in the enemy’s counsel. It makes my heart heavy to know this, but I have become accustomed to its heaviness. It is as if I have been asleep, and have woken to see darkness where before I saw only the light.
I think of you often, hoping your wounds are healed and that your heart kindles again with the joy of life. You have heard it from me before, but again I send you my sorrow for the part I played in your suffering. My pride and impulsiveness took me into danger, and I wish you had not been caught in it for my sake. I wish you would let my foster-father help you, for he has much skill in all matters of healing. Send only a word to me, and I will take you to him myself, if you are willing to go.
I must end now for we are to travel some leagues before night falls. My messenger will look for your answer if you wish to send one.
If all goes as I have planned, I may return in the spring. I send you my greetings and the friendship of my heart. A.’
Gwirith passed the parchment to Rumil to read and gazed out of the window, touched by the deep sadness of Aragorn’s words.
‘Dunland, I think,’ said Rumil, when he had finished. ‘I wonder which other lands are making alliance with them. Haldir and the Lord and Lady should see this also.’
Gwirith nodded. ‘He sounds very melancholy. He thinks all the burdens of Arda must be taken up on to his shoulders.’
‘He has a lonely task to fulfil,’ said Rumil.
‘But he is not alone. There are many who will choose his side over that of the dark one.’
‘Let us hope it will be so,’ said Rumil. ‘Tell Celinn what he says, if he will listen to you. When Haldir and the others have seen this, I will return it so that you may write an answer to Aragorn.’
‘I will do so,’ said Gwirith, ‘although he will get little pleasure from the news we have to tell him.’
‘Aragorn, do you have to stride out so far ahead?’ complained Degil quietly. ‘Try to look lazy and bored. We’re not on a route march, we’re trying to blend into the background.’
They were walking through a small, dirty market in a Dunlendish village, picking up supplies.
‘Sorry,’ mumbled Aragorn, forcing his long legs to slow down and letting his shoulders slouch. He frowned out from under the floppy brim of his stained black hat at the sullen, sour-faced men and women who moved from stall to stall, looking at the shrivelled vegetables and yellow-rinded cheeses to which several large blue flies were giving their attention.
‘We can’t eat any of this,’ he said with disgust. ‘I’d rather go hungry.’
‘And you will,’ said Degil, ‘because we’ve got nothing left.’ He stopped beside a stall where some haunches of dried meat were displayed and haggled with the gap-toothed stallholder until they had agreed on a price. The meat was wrapped in a piece of stained cloth and Degil shoved it into his pack.
‘Bread, Aragorn,’ he said, and Aragorn picked up three or four hard, dry round loaves and paid for them without a word.
‘Why did you do that?’ hissed Degil. ‘You could have got them for half that amount!’
‘Who cares,’ said Aragorn dully. ‘Let’s go, there’s nothing else for us to do here, Degil.’
Sly looks followed Aragorn’s tall figure as he strode away, having forgotten Degil’s earlier warning.
‘Boy, you may be Chieftain, but you still have a lot to learn,’ said Degil softly, but Aragorn caught the words, glancing back at him, half-angry, half-wounded.
They had soon left the village behind and were walking between fields where thin sheep grazed the sparse grass, heading for the camp they had made a week before.
‘I’m sorry, Degil,’ said Aragorn, after walking in silence for a good half hour. ‘I shouldn’t have been so difficult. I think living near these people is making me like them.’
Degil clapped a big, grimy hand on his shoulder. ‘You’ll learn,’ he said, peaceably.
Aragorn narrowed his eyes against the cold sunlight and looked out at the weak green of the hills on the horizon and the bone-coloured flints lying on the recently ploughed surface of the fields between which they walked. Far in the distance a little cloud of dust was rising on the road.
‘Horses?’ he said.
‘Two horseman, or maybe a carter,’ said Degil shortly, shading his eyes with his hand, then unconsciously loosening his sword in its scabbard.
It was a carter with a big yellow horse and two men sitting with their legs dangling out of the back of the cart, men so broad that they seemed to be sculpted bluntly out of stone. Aragorn let his shoulders slouch and took a long pipe out of his pocket and began to stuff pipeweed into it.
‘Do nothing,’ said Degil out of the corner of his mouth. Aragorn grunted and lit his pipe. They were almost level with the cart when Aragorn recognised one of the men sitting in the back; or rather he recognised his hand first, clenched into a fist on his lap, and which bore a large dark blue tattoo of a dragon with red eyes and long flickering tongue. Aragorn had seen that fist coming towards his unprotected face at least twenty times as he was bound helpless to a tree in Adanwath’s camp. It was impossible to mistake it.
His pipe fell from his lips and snapped as he trod on it in his haste to reach the man. Before Degil had time to speak a word, Aragorn was standing on top of the cart, legs braced either side of the man’s prone body, the point of his sword on the hollow at the base of his throat.
‘You probably don’t remember me,’ he said, in a soft dangerous voice that Degil had never heard before. ‘But I remember you. And you’re going to tell me all about yourself and what you’ve been doing.’
The carter and his other passenger began to shout and complain but Degil had his sword out by now and at the sight of the polished steel they fell silent. Aragorn jumped down to the ground.
‘Get up,’ he commanded, and the man with the tattoo struggled to a sitting position. Aragorn dragged him and the other passenger into the road and made the carter turn the horse round.
‘Master, let me go, I’ve done nothing!’ he complained, but Aragorn just looked at him, his naked sword still inches from the tattooed man’s throat.
When the cart had been turned he made the carter move forward slowly while the rest of them walked behind until they reached the Dunedain camp, about two miles away. Aragorn spoke quietly to the Dunadan on guard and the men were taken away.
‘What are you going to do with us?’ asked the carter in a trembling voice.
‘Ask him,’ said Aragorn, jerking his head at the tattooed man. ‘He’ll have a few ideas.’
Degil watched them go, then said, cold and quiet,
‘What do you think you’re doing? Who are they? I told you to let them pass, and you leap on board and hold them at the point of a sword? What possessed you, Aragorn?’
‘I know him, the one with the tattoo,’ said Aragorn. ‘He gave me this.’ He felt the ragged scar above his left eye. ‘And a few you can’t see. He might know some things which could be very useful to us, Degil.’
‘I see,’ said Degil, reluctantly admiring. ‘That was quick thinking, Aragorn. Let’s go and see what they know.’
‘No,’ said Aragorn, in a harsh bitter voice, his hand tight on Degil’s wrist. ‘Let them wait.’ He turned away and his cloak made a little draught as he walked away.
It was the middle of the night when Aragorn finally condescended to cast an eye on the men he had taken captive. They were bound hand and foot and sat dejected and lumpen by the small fire, watched by two Dunedain.
‘They found these on them,’ said Degil, putting several objects into Aragorn’s hand. Most were insignificant: a few coins, two crude knives with stained and rusty blades and a piece of parchment, so cracked and blotted that it could not be read. Aragorn put the parchment in his pocket and looked at the last item, a tear-shaped white pearl in a setting of gold filigree, on a long silver chain.
‘Which one of them had this?’ he asked. Degil jerked his head at the tattooed man.
‘You, where did you get this?’ demanded Aragorn.
The man turned slowly to him, his face grey with fatigue.
‘It’s mine,’ he said scornfully.
‘Is it indeed?’ said Aragorn. ‘Now that you’ve taken it from round the neck of one of your captives?’
‘What captives?’ said the man, in feigned amazement, his lip curling upwards. ‘I’m a farmer. I look after the sheep, milk the cows, bring in the hay. I don’t take captives.’
‘Is that so?’ said Aragorn, coming closer and squatting down so that he was looking into the man’s face. Slowly he removed his hat. ‘Then how do you think I got this, then?’ he said, stroking the scar over his eye with his index finger.
Even in the dim light of the fire Aragorn saw the man pale.
‘Oh, yes, Denvor,’ said Aragorn softly. ‘You’re in my hands now. And I haven’t forgotten a single thing about you and what you did to me. I seem to remember you enjoyed it quite a lot. Didn’t you and Adanwath laugh together after you’d finished hitting me?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,’ stammered Denvor. ‘I had to do it. You don’t know what Adanwath is like. It’s not possible to refuse him.’
‘Actually, I think I do know what he’s like,’ snarled Aragorn, seizing the collar of his shirt and staring into his face, ‘after what he did to me and my friends. Now, if you want to leave here alive, tell me who gave him his orders, and what you were doing at Anduin last year.’
‘I don’t know! He would never tell us anything like that!’ said Denvor in a high, scared voice. ‘I swear, I know nothing at all. I joined him because I had nowhere else to go. I just did what I was told.’
Aragorn released him and he fell back against the other two men who were watching in fearful silence.
‘Well, none of you is going anywhere until I get some information out of you. About Adanwath, about what he was up to…’
‘What do you mean, was?’ said Denvor.
‘Oh,’ said Aragorn. ‘Didn’t I mention it? He’s dead, Denvor. I caught him, filthy coward that he was.’
Denvor paled even further. ‘He’s dead?’ he whispered.
‘Yes. No more spoils from him now. No reason not to tell the truth, either,’ said Aragorn, suddenly reasonable. ‘In fact, maybe there’s some way we could both get something out of this.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Denvor, hoarsely, the firelight flickering over his face.
Aragorn sat down slowly beside him, aware of the guard behind him with sword drawn and ready.
‘Since it seems you’re masterless now, maybe you would like to work for me instead.’
‘Work for you? How?’
Aragorn gave a chilling smile. ‘Oh, I’m not like him. It’s not your special skills of persuasion that interest me. What I want is information. What’s really going on? Who gives the orders round here? Why the interest in Anduin?’ He glanced at the other two men, who seemed a little less stunned now than before.
‘In face, there might be work in it for all three of you,’ he said. ‘But first you’d have to prove to me that you were up to the job.’ He reached into his pocket and took out a small leather purse, its thin sides ridged by the coins inside. It rested in his palm beside the pearl.
‘If you could tell me something about this, then maybe you could have this.’ He threw the leather purse into the air and caught it as it fell. ‘And if you could tell us a few other things later, whenever some really interesting news catches your ear, then maybe I might be able to find another purse or two just like this one. I expect you’re hungry as well, and maybe someone is wondering why you’re so late getting back home tonight…’
Denvor’s eyes bulged with the possibilities before him. Aragorn waited, surprised that he could be so calm when he was filled with such unboundaried rage. Denvor’s erratic breathing was loud in the silence. At last he said harshly,
‘I got it from the elf.’
‘The elf,’ repeated Aragorn softly.
‘The one we captured. You found him and took him away on horseback.’
‘This belonged to Surindel?’ said Aragorn.
‘Whatever his name was. It was his. One of us pretended to be injured and they came to help us. Then we jumped them.’
Aragorn suddenly remembered Surindel’s quiet face as he laid him down after he had died in his arms, and for a moment he thought he could not go on with this charade. But then it seemed that he must, for Surindel’s sake, and for Celinn’s.
‘Why did you take them captive?’ he said, forcing himself to speak calmly.
‘Adanwath was looking for something. He thought they might know where it was, said the elves knew about this kind of thing.’
‘What kind of thing?’
‘That’s just it, he would never tell us what it was. He kept us away from the others so we couldn’t ask them either. And of course he liked hurting people, especially elves,’ he said, conversationally. ‘You can’t believe how happy he was when he recognised your pal, the one he…’
‘Enough!’ said Aragorn, through clenched teeth. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘Well, I know we were supposed to be going a lot further north. All the other bands did. So whatever it was, that’s where they thought they would find it.’
‘How did you get your orders?’ said Aragorn.
‘Adanwath met someone every spring and was told what to do. He never said who it was, but he was in some kind of uniform.’
‘I didn’t recognise it. There was some sort of shape on it. Something white, like a bird’s wing, something like that.’
‘Did you ever find anything at all?’ said Aragorn.
‘Only trouble,’ said Denvor, smiling at him conspiratorially. Aragorn sighed.
‘You have greatly impressed me, Denvor,’ he said. ‘I need someone like you.’
‘Who do you work for, then?’ asked Denvor.
‘I work for myself,’ said Aragorn. ‘But I do not work alone. These men you see around me are just a few of those I have at my disposal. There are many hundreds of us, but we do not like to be seen, so you will not find us revealing ourselves easily. If you work for me, gathering information about what is happening here in Dunland and over the mountains, along Anduin, I will reward you well, and I will not take my just revenge on you for what you did to me and to my friends. But do not forget I will be watching you, and so will my men. And if you betray me, I will not be merciful. I have the power to take your life, and I will do it, Denvor. Yours, and the lives of these men.’
The three captives stared at him. He spoke calmly but there was something stern and cold in his tone which impressed them greatly.
‘I’ll do it,’ said Denvor, reaching out his hand for the purse. ‘And so will they.’
Aragorn nodded and the guard cut through the ropes securing the three men.
‘My lieutenant will make the arrangements for you to pass information to us,’ said Aragorn, glancing at Degil. ‘In the meantime, tell those who know you that you were distracted by a drop of ale and could not find your way home.’ He reached for several stone bottles of beer that stood beside a tree. The guard looked at them longingly as Aragorn put them in the men’s hands.
‘And…’ said Denvor, reaching for the pearl.
‘No, I will be keeping this,’ said Aragorn. ‘Let us call it the price you will have to pay for spoiling my looks.’
Denvor laughed suddenly. ‘You’re certainly funnier than Adanwath,’ he said, holding out his hand. Aragorn took it briefly, and then Degil was escorting the men away.
Aragorn watched them go. The guard, a stocky middle-aged man with a scar bisecting his chin, looked at him appraisingly. Aragorn nodded to him and turned towards his tent, walking with a slight swagger, confident and bold.
Once inside his shoulders sagged and he pressed his arm across his churning stomach, feeling the bitter bile rise into his throat. The flap of the tent was flung back and Degil stood there.
‘It’s done, Aragorn. You’re right, they could be very useful to us. You did well, boy.’
Aragorn nodded without turning round. ‘I need some sleep, Degil. Wake me at dawn, will you?’
He slept in his clothes, his sword unsheathed within reach of his hand. He knew he could not hope to make sense of it all tonight so tried to think of home, but the contrast was too great and he could not compass the person he was tonight with the boy who had left Imladris the autumn before last.
A bitter oily smoke drifted into his tent. Someone must have been lucky with the bow and was making a meal of their catch. Eyes closed, Aragorn saw before him the fire they had made after he had gone orc-hunting with Celinn, and there was Gwirith, dragging the last orc back by its leg and flinging it on to the stinking pile. Aragorn retched, then flung one arm across his face and fell into an exhausted sleep.
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