My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Where the Stars are Strange: 2. Hard Questions
Aragorn hovered over the winded, gasping young man, pinning him to the ground, and his right hand held a dagger, poised to strike. And yet, he hesitated. Prudence demanded, fairly shouted, that he must slay the other quickly, that to spare this one was madness. Already, he could feel himself beginning to tremble as shock and sickness returned in full force. If I wait, then he will doubtless kill me for my pains, for this one is a warrior, however young, and he will not be an idle captive. He knew that, and yet gazing down at the other, into defiant eyes that nonetheless bespoke fear and confusion ere the lad fell unconscious, he perceived a glimmer of curiosity and innocence. I cannot! With a groan, Aragorn sank exhausted to the ground beside his foe, sheathing the knife. It seemed a bitter irony after all the years of hunting and hiding that a mere child should bring him to this pass, and yet he supposed pity had always been the chink in his armor, though one that (fortunately!) orcs and their like could never comprehend, and so could never exploit it against him. Now though . One boy, likely scarce old enough for his braids, who never asked for mercy, and I am disarmed utterly!
What shall I do with him when he wakes? Aragorn wondered, mind racing furiously. Or is that the question? Shall I have a choice? For how indeed would he convince this youth to trust him after so poor a beginning? Or should he even try? What would a Haradrim expect of another Haradrim in this situation? An outlaw would fight, and would have no qualms about murdering the boy in his sleep, let alone after a fair contest. But though I look the part, I am no outlaw. Or rather, a most unusual one! Aragorn closed his eyes, thinking. Harad was not Mordor, for all that many in Gondor held the two equal. Sauron ruled here, yes, but beyond the ties of politics and servitude, Harad was its own entity. The Haradrim lived according to their own customs much of the time, and so there were outlaws and citizens, even as there were in the West. A foreigner with a gift for tongues, who was cautious and observant, could learn enough to pass through this arid land, if he dared. But though Aragorn respected the laws that all Haradrim lived by in their daily lives, there were certain questions and demands that he was not prepared to answer or accede to.
Such as my service to the Overlord! He grimaced, tracing the path of the sword stroke that had nearly killed him, feeling the injury burn like fire. The Messenger of Mordor had arrived in Hastar, a squalid pit that barely deserved the name of 'village,' let alone 'town,' and had ordered all the gates shut. No one was to enter or depart until the Messenger gave leave, and even Aragorn knew why. In so desolate a place as Hastar, there was little likelihood of finding trained warriors, but conscripts, too, could serve Mordor's purposes or slaves. Having escaped for the moment, he could even appreciate the morbid irony that his own actions on the quays of Umbar were likely the cause of the sudden increase in unannounced conscriptions, for in the northwestern regions of Harad they had grown quite common since the burning of the Corsair fleet. He had thought to avoid them this far inland, but luck had failed him in that instance. Caught seeking a way past the barriers, he had left behind him three dead men, a host of vengeful guards, and the enraged messenger, whose curses had followed him into the night.
And so I suppose I am not even an outlaw, but a traitor, he thought, and was surprised by how bitterly that word lay upon his tongue. He had never sworn an oath to Harad, nor had he any obligation by birth or blood to obey the laws of a people in the service of his mortal enemy, and yet he felt unclean for the deceptions he practiced here. Subterfuge and misdirection, silence and reserve were a Ranger's weapons, as well-honed and familiar as sword or bow or dagger. And at the moment, he hated all such arts of concealment. Perhaps it was delirium, or perhaps he had harbored his doubts and cares too long alone, but he felt that to save his life he could not now decide how to deal with this Haradrim. The many masks that he had worn swirled with vertiginous malice within his memory, pricking his conscience with their separate demands while refusing to coalesce into a decision. Thorongil would try to reason with this boy, he thought. Estel, ere he knew what he was, would have tried to charm him; Strider would warn him against rash acts and I suppose that the Haradrim I have become would slay him. What Aragorn would do I know not. I have, perhaps, spent too little time in his skin to know his mind. A dry wind whistled through the passes, carrying dust, and Aragorn coughed, doubling over as the spasm wracked him. Pain burned with each breath as torn muscles contracted, and he felt heat trickle wetly from beneath the bandage, down his side and stomach as fresh blood welled up in response. And beside him, he heard a low moan as his captive began to stir .
Sensation was slow to return as Indirkan clawed his way through the veiled layers of unconsciousness, resisting the currents that threatened to drag him back down into the darkness. I know not why I struggle, for surely I am dead? It was not a question he had ever thought to ask himself, and he wondered what it meant that he could ask it. But eventually, after he knew not how long, he became aware of his body once more, of himself lying flat on a hard surface. A dull ache localized somewhere near the base of his skull, and his right arm tingled painfully. Dust-laden air stang as he breathed it in, and of a sudden there came a fit of coughing but not from him! With a low moan, Indirkan forced his eyes open to a stony roof, and, using his left arm, he pushed himself up on one elbow as he muzzily glanced about, seeking his enemy. A shape huddled some short distance from him, and Indirkan bared his teeth in a grimace as he sat up, rubbing a hand against the back of his head, and peering at his opponent.
The other had his back to the wall, one leg drawn up to his chest and his left arm was cradled in the crook of leg and hip. His right hand was laid upon the hilt of his dagger, but he did not draw it, and Indirkan frowned at that. Weaponless, and still dazed as he was, Indirkan knew he would have been an easy mark. Indeed, his assailant could have slain him easily while he lay senseless upon the ground. Why did he stay his hand?
"Why do you wait?" he demanded, voice taut with suspicion and an effort not to let his fear show too baldly. Silence was his only response, and as the protracted moments slipped away, he felt an anguished and angry frustration fill him. "Do not think to toy with me! Speak! Why did you not strike?"
"What is your name, lad?" The words came back softly, wearily, in a tone whose gentleness surprised him.
"Indirkan," he replied, responding to that voice before he could think to censor himself.
"Indirkan," the stranger repeated. "Of what house?"
"Why should I tell you?" the Haradrim snapped, berating himself for the slip. "I owe nothing to a bandit!"
A low chuckle emanated from the other, though he grimaced in pain. "Then well for you that I am not one!"
"Tell me your name, then, if you be an honest man!" Indirkan challenged.
"You may call me Khordan, if you must have a name, and I shall leave my honesty to the judgment of others," said the stranger.
"I may call you Khordan?"
"Yes, you may," the stranger replied, stressing his permission, as a slight, rather cynical smile played about his mouth. Indirkan's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the other, seeking the key by which to read his enigmatic opponent. His captor's face was lean and sharp-angled, seemingly young, yet Indirkan suspected him of carrying more years than his appearance admitted. Dark brows arched over deep-set eyes of a startling grey, lending an almost ascetic severity to the other's face, though full, pouting lips added an oddly sensual touch to that otherwise stern and earnest portrait. Dark hair, worn just below shoulder length, framed all, and was caught back in a queue, bound loosely with a simple thong and unbraided. At the moment, his captor's expression was closed, taut, and etched with pain, but his regard was clear and sharp still. Indirkan could not help but stare at him, trying to determine what the other might be. For though the man's grey eyes and strongly carved bones suggested Corsair blood, there was something about him that argued against so ready a conclusion. His attire, for one thing, was better suited to travel by land, and no Corsair would have ventured so far from the broad waters alone. For another, he spoke too readily after the manner of the Dargalt province, which those of Umbar disdained. Whence comes he? Indirkan wondered. No common thief this one, I wager! But what then? Or was I right to think only one such as myself would come here?
His eyes dropped to the blood that stained "Khordan's" shirt, and through the tear in the fabric, he could see a darkly stained bandage that seemed to do little to stop the bleeding. "How came you by that? And what meant you when you said others would judge your honesty? Or do you play now another game?" Indirkan asked, surreptitiously tensing, ready to spring. He thought he had made no discernible movement in the dim light, but those piercing grey eyes narrowed instantly.
"A word of caution, my friend," said Khordan, and now his voice was stern and steady. "I play no games when my life is at stake. Wounded I may be, but I can wield a dagger, and if you move to escape or offer me violence, I will use it! We both know, I think, how that must end." He pinned the other under his stare, and Indirkan felt his cheeks heat as he bowed his head. "Now, from what house do you hail?"
"The House of Rhanion," Indirkan replied in a low voice, recognizing the futility of any escape attempt at this time.
"Rhanion. And why comes one of that line to a place such as this? You accuse me of thievery, but I could say the same of you," said Khordan, and fierce anger flared in Indirkan. The stranger saw it, and nodded slowly. "Well? Speak, lad!"
"I am no more a thief than are you, if you did not lie!"
"Is that so? Then why came you here?"
"Tell me your tale first, and then I shall tell mine!"
"Or perhaps I could tell it for you," Khordan replied as if Indirkan had not spoken, gazing at the other intently. He paused a moment, and those unnerving grey eyes seemed to cut through Indirkan to lay bare his soul. "By your manner and your face, you are young, and newly come to your station," Khordan continued, slowly, with deliberation. "And perhaps you wish for war, to prove yourself loyal to your House and the Overlord. Yet you come here. House Rhanion is not well-known for its valor. Mayhap you resent such attention as is lavished upon you for your blood. Or perhaps" and here Indirkan's jaw clenched as the other's voice, never loud, sank still lower to a bare, almost intimate murmur. Indirkan might have thought he spoke to himself, and had forgotten his audience, but for the keen focus those bright eyes exhibited"perhaps the power of Mordor frightens you, for you see in its darkness the sickness of this land."
"'Tis treason to speak so!" Indirkan grated, feeling a flare of panic in his breast nonetheless, for Khordan's musings were terrifyingly astute. He might have expected the jibe concerning his family (if jibe it was), for Rhanion House was infamous for its fall. But no one knew of his secret fears, not even his father or sister! How could a stranger, wounded and on the brink of collapse, discern in only a few minutes of guarded conversation his mistrust of the power he was duty-bound to serve? Traitor, traitor! Thou art a traitor! whispered that terribleand terribly honestinner voice, with an obscene glee. And how could I have overlooked that what I think and breed in my heart is treason? I must have known, I did know, on some level what I wrought in myself, but I could not name it 'til he spoke! Fear mingled with his earlier anger, and he glared at the other with loathing for having torn the mask from his own false face and forced him to look directly into the mirror at last.
"Aye, it is treason to speak thus," Khordan said softly in reply, undaunted by Indirkan's resentful stare. "And treason to feel thus, or so we are told!" And of a sudden, Indirkan understood.
"You feel it too!" Brown eyes met grey ones briefly, and then flicked down once more to the bloodstain ere they rose again to search Khordan's face. "Nay," he continued after a moment, and his voice was laden with dark emotion, "Nay, more! Or why else came you here, injured as you are? Someone knows your heart too well!"
"My heart," Khordan repeated, and laughed softly, though the pain was writ plainly on his face. "Even I know it not!" A pause. "And now what shall we do, we who now have each other's lives in hand?" Indirkan ran his tongue over dry lips and found he could not swallow. Here sit two traitors, though no other knows me for one! What, indeed, shall we do?
"I know not!" he replied, slouching in sudden, sympathetic exhaustion. "A plague upon us both, I know not!"
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