34. The Taste of Ash
The Taste of Ash
Aragorn stared numbly at the vast field of carnage and rubble starkly lit by the full light of day. The battle was finally over. He was wearier than any other time he could recall, and sick with grief and regret. He could hardly trust his own legs to carry him for any distance. But he must continue; so, on he trudged as he moved from one tragedy to another, each worse than the last.
He had gathered five hundred Riders and a thousand men afoot, and with Erkenbrand and Grimbold beside him they came over the crest with the sunrise and turned the fate of Rohan, and with it, perhaps, Gondor's future. But they had not done so alone. For by now they had discovered the source of the mysterious forest that watched in heavy silence. Three tall Onodrim had emerged from the eaves of the strange army, insisting that they would speak only to the Wood Elf. Legolas had gone eagerly into the shadowed wood. He had not yet returned.
The Deeping Coomb was filled with noise—the rumble of carts bearing the dead to their common grave, shouts of men already busy clearing debris, the whinnies of horses gathered in a makeshift paddock, the squawks and caws of the carrion birds. Aragorn glimpsed Erkenbrand rushing to and fro, seemingly tireless as he sought to bring a semblance of order to the ruins of his homeland. Tents for the wounded had been raised; from them came the moans and frantic cries of men pleading with the leeches, begging to save a crushed limb, or as friend or brother found his fellow too late to say farewell.
The tally of death began. The defenders of Helm's Deep suffered great losses. The fortress had been manned by a few hundred before the arrival of the Prince, mainly old men and youths too green for war who had not ridden with Erkenbrand to the Fords. Théodred brought a thousand, and Eomer another hundred. Before the coming of the dawn, more than half of those were slain or too grievously injured to take to battle again. Nor were the reinforcements untouched; Erkenbrand lost a quarter of his troops, and Grimbold five score Riders and their steeds. Few were unhurt, and all were strained with fatigue.
The Rangers of the North could ill afford to lose even one of the thirty men Halbarad had brought with him. Alas, eight had been killed. Aragorn crouched beside his lieutenant as he clutched the mangled body of his son Halmir. His kinsman turned an unseeing gaze at him, his eyes raw as tears flowed into his beard. Aragorn reached out to wrap his arms about his cousin; but Halbarad stiffened and thrust him away.
"Do not touch me!" his second-in-command, his kinsman, his sworn brother and his closest friend said in a low voice, his face now twisted with rage rather than grief. "We should not have been here… He should not have been here! And you--you were not here!"
Indor stood nearby. "He's not in his head, Aragorn," he whispered. "He doesn't mean it…"
Yes he does, and I deserve it, Aragorn thought grimly.
He then turned to an even more heart-rending scene, if such a thing were possible. Gimli, of all people, had given him the bitterest news, and it was the Dwarf who stood guard over the Peredhil now, his weight on his right leg as he leaned on the broken shaft of some discarded spear.
Aragorn approached slowly. How can it be? Why him? Why here? His head rang with a clamor of self-doubt. This is all my fault… None of this would had come to be had I listened to the protests of my second and my stepbrothers and turned south to Harrowdale at once… The Twain would never even have come to this dire place, were it not for me… Did I misinterpret Gandalf's words? Did pride and ambition sway me? And what he most dreaded: how would he tell Elrond, or Arwen?
Elrohir's head was wrapped in a blood-stained bandage. Elrond's son—his true son, his only son, now—sat rocking slowly with closed eyes, his twin cradled in his lap.
Gimli had warned him, but to no avail—nothing could have prepared him.
"Legolas saw him slip from the wall, and searched for him when it was over," the Dwarf had said. "I wasn't far off when he found him. The sound…" Gimli's voice faltered, and Aragorn stared at his usually gruff companion, whose eyes now were glittering. "I've not heard such a mournful sound before, such a wild keening… My father spoke of it: the wail of the Wood Elves, as he heard it long ago, at the Battle of the Five Armies…" Gimli blinked hard and continued. "Elladan's spine had snapped in the fall. Imagine the delight of the Orcs to find an Elf who could not evade them. They bound his hands…"
A wave of horror rushed over Aragorn as he gazed down. His step-brother, Elladan--the more mischievous one, the twin given less to melancholy; the one who, as very few noticed, had a tiny fleck of gold at the edge of one deep blue iris, and a slightly more crooked grin; the healer who was more skilled with sutures than with herblore; the one who seemed more relaxed but was a harder task-master when it came to training youthful swordsmen—was hardly recognizable. His beautiful features were battered, his noble nose smashed, his ears hacked roughly, his eyelids swollen and blackened.
He forced himself to kneel upon the hard ground at his stepbrother's side. Elrohir was singing softly, one hand slowly caressing his brother's face. Aragorn's eyes drifted downward. I must see, I must know… Elladan's finely made tunic, stiff with dried blood, had been ripped open. The hideous purple blotches—boot-marks--and cruel slashes continued down his exposed flesh. It was impossible to say which wound had taken him. Had he died from loss of blood? Been kicked to death? There is but one word for this--torture…
"Elrohir," he whispered as he laid a hand on his stepbrother's arm.
The faint singing ceased. Elrohir did not open his eyes. He pulled Elladan's body more closely to his chest.
"Leave us, Estel," he said softly. "Leave us alone."
Aragorn drew back, his head bowed. He stood by for a moment, eyes closed. Then Elrohir spoke again.
"They cut out his tongue," he said hoarsely. "Did you know that, Estel? Quite likely it was the first thing they did, so that he could not cry out for help, so that no one on the wall would know he was still alive..."
Aragorn's eyes stung as he stared down at his stepbrothers. Elrohir stared back at him, accusingly—or so it seemed to Estel.
"I am so sorry, Tóro-nin…" Aragorn said in a harsh whisper.
Elrohir's eyes closed again. "Leave us. Please."
The soft music of his voice followed as Aragorn turned his anguished face and walked away. His mouth seemed full of the taste of ash, and the center of his chest was tight as if gripped by a vice beneath his breastbone. A thought drifted in and out: how when he was a child, growing up in Rivendell, he had always thought it strange how sad the Elves seemed, even at times of celebration. His mother had shushed him and held him to her. No mortal can possibly know their burden of endless loss… A few days ago he had begun his eighty-ninth year of mortal life, and the bitter sorrow of loss was as heavy a weight as he had known.
Gimli glanced from one to the other, then limped after Aragorn. The man was moving slowly enough that even with his injury the Dwarf caught him easily.
"What happened to your leg?" Aragorn muttered as they paced carefully through the human wreckage that lay before the wall of Helm's Deep.
The man frowned down at his companion. "You should not be walking…"
"There are many things that should not be."
Aragorn winced; he stopped and squeezed his eyes shut. GImli leaned on his crutch and shook his head.
"Sorry. I did not mean that the way it sounded…"
"No apology, Gimli, not from you." The man's voice was rough. "Not from anyone who followed me into this..."
Gimli gave no response. Aragorn gazed about, at a loss, for the moment, to know where to go next. Then he saw Grimbold striding toward them from half-way down the vale. The look on the old warrior's face was a mix of disgust and rage.
"Thorong…I mean, Aragorn," Grimbold said, his voice urgent. "I need your help. Théodred's mood is fey, and he is about to do something he will regret…"
"What is it?"
"The Dunlendings surrendered, but Théodred… He's lost control of himself!"
The two men moved quickly, outpacing the Dwarf. Before them, several dozen Riders had gathered in a half circle; Aragorn saw the Prince's black stallion and the burnished gleam of his bronze and silver armor shining in the sunlight. Aragorn wished for Shadowfax—but he had given the Mearas-King over to the Rohirrhim's stablemaster for a much-deserved rest and grooming. They broke through the line of horses and at once saw the reason for Grimbold's distress.
Before the Riders, more than a hundred dark-haired, terrified captives were gathered, their hands bound. Foot soldiers of Rohan were about them in a great ring; each man was armed and ready with bow, sword or spear. Théodred was shouting angrily at a man who had been singled out—the Hillmen's commander, Aragorn guessed.
"…I care not for your excuses, Dunlander! You made your choice when you swore allegiance to Isengard…"
"But my Lord, we had little choice! The Wizard threatened our people…"
"Silence!" Théodred thundered. "I will not listen to your lies! Harmund, do my bidding!"
"But my Prince…" Harmund said, his face stricken with horror. "They have laid down their arms, Lord…"
"Pah! Is there no man here who has the stones to follow my command?"
A dozen men at once raised their weapons and rushed toward the prisoners. But the young sister-son of the King, Eomer, whom Aragorn had met just that morning, spurred his horse from the circle fastest. The Dúnadan gasped as the young man swept out his blade.
Aragorn leapt forward to try to stop him. Too late. With a wild yell and a mighty swing, Eomer beheaded the Dunlending commander. Mayhem broke out. The Rohirrhim raised their voices in terrible cries of rage and revenge, and they fell upon the Dunlendings. Aragorn pushed through the mob of men and horses to come to the Prince.
"Théodred!" Aragorn shouted over the din, as he reached up and grasped the Prince's arm. "This is madness! Stop them!"
Théodred glared back. "Stop them? No one stopped them from murdering Hama and defiling his corpse before my eyes! No one stopped them from mutilating poor Bréga—just a boy!"
"Orcs did those things, not these men! They have surrendered, you cannot…"
"These men are no different than the Orcs at whose side they fought! Every last one deserves death!"
"You do nothing save to make sworn enemies of the Dunlendings for all time!"
"They are our enemies, and they always will be!" He shook Aragorn's hand away with a savage snarl. "Now leave, if you have no stomach for a real war, Northerner!"
Théodred spurred his horse forward. In the course of just minutes, over a hundred dark-haired, bound and unarmed men lay slaughtered. The Prince watched coldly as his men hacked the body of the commander into pieces and scattered them.
Those Riders who would not participate in the butchery retreated with Grimbold, Aragorn and the Dwarf. The old commander shook his head in disbelief.
"I never thought I'd live to see the day that men of the Mark would do such things… I'm going to find Erkenbrand." He nodded toward the Deep. "This is his fortress, after all, and his people who took refuge in yonder caves. He's taking charge, making sure what needs doing is done… And he has to know what has just transpired before his very gates…"
The grey-bearded warrior turned to Aragorn and scowled. "You should rest, my old friend. You look awful." He turned to Gimli. "Make him rest, will you? I'll send a leech, if I can find one who isn't busy… " He bowed and turned, and with a surprisingly swift pace he strode off.
"He's right," Gimli grunted.
"In what respect?" Aragorn replied. "That I need rest, or that I look awful?"
"Both. Now, the problem is, where in this forsaken valley of death might a pair of weary friends find a decent spot to share a swallow of clean water and a half wafer of lembas and take a nap?"
"Might you find room for three friends?"
The man and Dwarf turned at the sound of the musical voice.
"Legolas!" Aragorn cried, as he reached out to grasp his hand. "What news from the Ents?"
The Elf's fair face was stern, but a wan smile graced it as he bowed. "That is a queer and remarkable tale, but first you should break what I suspect is far too long a fast and rest. Might I suggest that we seek refuge over there…"
The Elf pointed toward a cluster of tents that had appeared on the western edge of the valley, halfway from the wall to the dark wood. Some two dozen mostly grey, shaggy-coated horses were tethered nearby, and with them, in his own enclosure, was Shadowfax. The proud stallion had rolled onto his back, his shining black hooves raised as he snored peacefully in the sunlight.
"Your horse has the right idea," Gimli said. "If ever there was a better time for well deserved sleep, I know not when."
He started limping toward the encampment of the Dúnedain, Legolas at his side. But Aragorn hung back. The Elf turned.
"What is it, Aragorn?"
The man had a deep frown on his drawn face. "I am not certain I will be welcome there."
Legolas gazed at him in surprise. But Gimli took a few steps back and stamped the broken spearshaft on the ground.
"Listen to me," he said in a firm, low voice. "You must shake this grim mood, Aragorn. Give more credit to your own folk—they are truehearted men, and you are their kin and leader. Terrible things have happened, hideous things—such is war, as it always has been. You bear no fault! If blame is to be laid, it is at the feet of the Wizard Saruman. That he is dead does not excuse him from his crimes! And you know well enough that what has happened here is nothing in comparison to what will happen if you do not succeed, if our friends far away do not succeed..." Gimli's hazel eyes flashed. "It was a fell night, and has been a dreadful morn. But this day will pass, my friend."
Aragorn's shoulders sagged. A fleeting grimace passed across his features as another wave of the pain he had been struggling to conceal shot through him like a spear-thrust. I will not let this gain control of me! I will not allow it to weaken my resolve… He nodded and sighed.
"You are right, of course. But my heart has been as sorely tried today as ever has been my flesh…"
Legolas took note of the man's weariness. "And your flesh, I deem, has been tried enough for three men…" He shot a glance at Gimli; the Dwarf returned his worried look. "Come, my friend. Let us find a quiet place."
As they picked their slow way across the battlefield, the Elf quickly explained what he had learned--how the Ents had been at last roused to war, and what had transpired thereafter.
"The main force of the Onodrim--no more than fifty, but sufficient for the task, given their tremendous strength—marched directly to Isengard, intent on its destruction. Six accompanied these Huorns…"
"Huorns?" Gimli said. "What are they?"
"They are trees that can awaken at need, even as you see them." He gestured toward the solemn woods. "The Onod to whom I spoke called them the representatives of all Trees—the wild and untamed Spirits of Trees, if you will. They came to take revenge upon the Orcs of Isengard. It is well that the Rohirrhim fear Fangorn and do not cut its wood; they might have found themselves the next target of the Huorns' ire." He looked at Aragorn. "The Onodrim send messages to and fro—they can move remarkably swiftly. The news from Isengard confirms what the man Grima reported. Curunir is indeed dead, and all but the ancient Tower itself lies in ruins."
"And what of our small friend, Merry?" Gimli asked.
"Of him the Ent knew nothing," Legolas said. He smiled slightly "But the last I saw young Meriadoc, it was in the company of the chief Onod himself. It was largely due to the influence of the Hobbit that the Onodrim decided to take action. I suspect he marched with them."
The three Companions now came near to the encampment of the Northern Rangers. As soon as he spotted them, the man on guard turned and pulled aside the flap of a tent. Soon, others emerged.
Legolas pointed. "You see? Your men are waiting for you."
And indeed, as the three Companions approached, Halbarad stood at the fore of the other twenty-two surviving Dúnedain. His face was still haggard with grief, but as his kinsman walked toward him he reached out and drew Aragorn into his embrace.
"Forgive me, Gwador-nin," he whispered. "I did not mean…."
"Ah, Hal," Aragorn murmured. "How my heart aches for you…"
One pavilion had been set aside for the fallen. Before he would rest, Aragorn insisted that he visit and say farewell. Here were men he had known for years: some, like Halmir, since the day they were born; others, like old Thavron, he'd met when he'd appeared at age twenty to live among his people as Isildur's Heir.
"Thavron was the swords-master in the Angle," Aragorn mused aloud to his friends as he gazed down upon the man's aged, grizzled face. "Hal and I were his students. He thought it was his mission in life to rid me of the 'fancy Elvish habits' I'd learned in Rivendell…"
"He never did succeed," Halbarad muttered. "Which worked out well enough. You are the finest swordsman of this Age—Edain or Eldar …"
Aragorn shifted his right shoulder stiffly. It remains to be seen whether that is still true… In the battle just past, he had lifted his blade but once: as the reinforcements streamed into the valley with the dawn. He had left the killing to others. Added to his many burdens was a secret fear that he might not ever regain the prowess as a warrior he once held.
Legolas took note of Aragorn's discomfort. He bowed his head. "There is a duty I have yet to fulfill. Sleep now, Aragorn. I will return."
The Elf turned and left the pavilion; unnoticed, Gimli slipped out and followed him. When Aragorn completed his homage to the fallen, Halbarad brought his Chieftain to his own tent. Within seconds of lying down, he was fast asleep.
When Aragorn next opened his eyes, he saw that the light had shifted; it was late in the afternoon. He had slept so deeply, however, he could not say if just a few hours, or an entire night and another day had passed. He sighed and rolled to his left side, intending to ease himself to a sitting position. But he stopped in mid-motion and stared.
Elrohir sat cross-legged on the ground beside him. The Peredhel's eyes were rimmed with red, and his face was etched with sadness, but as Aragorn's gaze fell on him his mouth curled with a slightly crooked smile.
"You slept as you did when you were a child. I am glad. You needed it."
Aragorn swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up. He leaned forward and reached out in silence; Elrohir stretched out one arm and placed his hand in his stepbrother's grasp. They sat there, for a moment, without speaking, holding on to one another. Then the Half-Elf sighed, and in one smooth motion he rose to his feet.
"May I?" He indicated the cot. The man nodded, and Elrohir sat beside him.
"Tóro-nin," he said softly. "I do not blame you for Elladan's death. How could you think that?"
Aragorn's voice was hoarse. "I don't know… I thought…"
"My heart--indeed, my very féa is torn asunder, and cannot be whole again on these shores. But blame you? For what, my brother—for the viciousness of Orcs? For the actions of an Istar who fell into Darkness? Nay—what happened to 'Adan is no fault of yours." Elrohir's eyes glittered. He looked directly ahead, out the flap of the tent, where in the distance, the forest of Huorns stood. "Earlier today, when Legolas came to find me, he brought a message from the Onodrim. When they learned what happened, the Onodrim said that they would bear Elladan's body wherever I wished—to the land of our grandparents, or to the highest peaks of the Mountains of Mist that he loved so… I thought to go with them, to pass through Fangorn and come to Lothlorien, and from thence return home and bring Ada the news…"
He turned and placed his hand on Aragorn's arm.
"But a friend of yours…aye, a friend to both of us spoke words of greater wisdom…"
Aragorn looked up; the Elf of Mirkwood and the Dwarf of Erebor stood at the tent's opening.
"And what did you say to him, Legolas?"
Legolas reddened, and Elrohir sniffed. "It was not Legolas who spoke, Estel. It was this overly hairy, bandy-legged, stone-stubborn, stout-hearted son of Mahal who reminded me that I have more than one brother. And that the brother who remains at my side needs me more than the brother who is, for now, parted from me."
Gimli grunted. Elrohir bowed his head at the Dwarf. "Besides, I cannot leave without learning the outcome of the fierce competition that has begun between these two…"
Aragorn looked at his companions. "Now what?"
The Elf and the Dwarf glared at one another, but both were hiding grins.
"It seems we were both playing the same game," Legolas explained.
"..unbeknownst to the other…"
"…We each kept track, you see…"
"…of dead Orcs." Gimli said. "And apparently, we are tied. Forty-two…"
Legolas bristled. "Only if one counts these things by the rules of the Dwarves!"
Gimli leaned forward on his crutch. "If you can claim the two that were flattened when the Orc felled by your arrow tumbled backward from the wall, I ought to be able to include in my accounting the three that Elrohir dispatched after we came out of the caves. After all, he never would have had the chance if not for me…"
Legolas glared. "Then Aragorn would best us all—for by that logic he can claim credit for every Orc taken by Théodred, Erkenbrand and Grimbold's men, and your tally as well!"
Aragorn smiled wryly. "Enough, my friends, enough! Call a truce---for now. I assure you, there will be opportunity for this contest to continue all too soon!"
Elrohir then shooed the others from the tent. "'Tis time I had a look at that shoulder of yours, Estel…"
Aragorn submitted to his stepbrother's examination stoically. The Peredhel found the wound in reasonable condition—a swath of purple but well-knitted tissue where he and his brother had opened it, some days ago, with pale skin surrounding it. But he frowned as he laid his palm flat on Aragorn's shoulder blade. A spot of intense heat, the size of a large coin, came from deep within. He reached into his armpit and probed carefully. Try as he might to suppress it, Aragorn flinched and gasped.
"Raise your arm," Elrohir instructed sternly.
Aragorn hesitated. "I would prefer not to…"
The Peredhel drew in a deep breath and let his hand fall. "Tell me, brother," he said quietly. "The truth. Which is worse: the weakness, or the pain?"
Aragorn sighed. "The latter…"
"Have the fevers begun again?"
"…but the sweats …"
"They began the night before we left Edoras."
Elrohir came from around the cot and sat again beside his stepbrother. He gazed at him intently.
"You have more than enough training and knowledge, Estel. You are aware what these signs most likely mean?"
Aragorn was already nodding. Elrohir's eyes dropped.
"You are the Heir of Isildur, Tóro-nin, but you are also a man. What would you have me do?" he whispered.
"I would have you wait," Aragorn replied softly. "We might be wrong; this might yet heal, with more time. If it does not… If all else goes according to plan, the time will come to do whatever is required… And if things go ill, it matters not. And Elrohir, I beg you--say nothing to the others."
Elrohir took Aragorn's hand in his own and gripped it firmly. "I know not quite how to say this, Estel… Let me assure you of one thing: If you fear how my sister might react…"
"Nay," Aragorn said with a sad smile. "Arwen's fidelity is the one truth of which I have no doubt. She is, after all, the descendent of Luthien the Fair."
Elrohir nodded. "But more importantly, her love for you, Aragorn, is strong enough to overcome any obstacle."
He helped him slip on his tunic as the flap on the tent opening moved. They heard Indor's voice from just outside.
"It is time, Aragorn…"
They emerged into the slanting afternoon light to find the Rangers gathered in solemn ranks. Grimbold had come, and Erkenbrand, and at the rear of the men were Gimli and Legolas. Aragorn took his place at the front at Halbarad's side, and with Elrohir behind him they paced slowly toward a large open grave, newly dug. Within it, nine shrouded figures lay at rest.
Aragorn turned to his stepbrother with a question on his lips; before he could speak the Peredhel answered.
"He would be glad to stay here with the Dúnedain of the North, men he has known and loved and fought beside from the beginning of this Age. And I am proud to see him lie in such valiant company."
The ceremony of burial was brief, the words were few. They stood in silence, heads bowed, facing the westering Sun, just as Théodred and Eomer rode up and joined them. When The Silence was complete, the Prince of Rohan approached Aragorn.
His face was flushed and he evaded the older man's eye. "My deep sympathy, for your brethren who fell on behalf of Rohan…"
"And my heart grieves for your many losses, Prince. But all who fell here did so as part of the struggle against not only Saruman and his servants, but against the Darkness to the East. This was, I fear, but the first battle in a greater war to come."
The Prince bit his lower lip anxiously. Then he leaned in and spoke in a low voice. "Aragorn, I… I would that you understood my reasoning for what happened earlier today…"
"Alas, Théodred, 'reason' had little to do with it."
The Prince shot him a glance; then he looked down, his face dark with anger—or with shame. Aragorn went on sternly.
"My advice to you, from one leader of men to another, is this: Few actions taken outside the heat of battle itself require an immediate decision by the wise ruler. When you find yourself rushing headlong into some rash deed that, once done, cannot be undone, take a moment to seek counsel. Standing here are two men both doughty and sage." He nodded to Erkenbrand and Grimbold. "Keep them close, Théodred, and heed their guidance."
Théodred nodded slowly. "I will think on your words, friend." He glanced at Eomer, whose youthful face was now full of confusion and guilt. "What are your plans now, my Lord Aragorn?"
"Once again, Prince, I must beg leave to speak first to my kin—to seek their counsel in that regard. When we have decided, word will be sent to you." He placed his clenched fist upon his breast, then extended his open hand toward the Prince with a wan smile. "My heart tells me we shall meet again, Prince Théodred, though all the forces of Mordor lie between us."
Théodred took his hand and clasped it firmly. Then with a quick nod, he and the other Rohirrhim left and returned with Erkenbrand to the ruins of the fortress for the night.
Aragorn turned to the remnant of the Grey Company. "Well? What say you, friends?"
"I'd not argue if you suggested we leave this fell valley immediately," Halbarad said. "If yonder trees will suffer us to pass…"
"They will," Legolas said. "The Ents assured me that the Huorns would be gone in the morning, and any trustworthy men who wished to pass through the forest before nightfall could do so uncontested. Though, they also warned not to venture beneath the trees after dark."
"Then we should leave at once, before the Sun sets. We make camp tonight upon the open plain." Aragorn turned to his lieutenant. "If you will forgive me again, Hal, I would make one final detour ere we at last turn south—a shorter one, this time. I hope to make the acquaintance of one who has been an unexpected but valuable ally, and to see something no one has witnessed in many an Age…"
"And hopefully reunite with a small but courageous friend," Legolas added.
"And forget not, Estel," Elrohir said. "As the Heir to the thrones of Gondor and Arnor, the place of which you speak is, by rights, yours to claim, and all that is in it."
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.