10. The Remnant
"You cannot keep him to yourself."
There was a pause. Aragorn was heavy with sleep, the world of dreams no yet melted into the waking world.
"You have not the right, and you may not even have the strength."
Voices… Who were speaking? Warmth against his back. The rise and fall of slow breaths. Bodies around him, and voices. People.
"Test us, and you shall find neither lacking. We guarded him for many years, and his father, and his fathers before that. Do not speak to us about 'right', you who disallowed his longfather."
"Yet he it was who brought the claim. Would you disallow it now?"
He knew the second voice, though distorted by suppressed anger. The name eluded him, but… voices. And warm, breathing bodies around him. When had he last woken with the warmth of the living around him?
A new voice, but yes: Haldor was the voice he knew. He moved, and the warmth behind him stiffened and sat up.
He knew the other voice too, but the name slipped him, buried in the fog of recline.
"He is waking."
The quarrel stopped. Movements and feet around him. Despite the knowledge at the edge of his mind, he curled in on himself. The warmth was gone. A hand, light and gentle, touched his shoulder. He flinched from it, startled by memories.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The chains of his manacles rattled as he rolled. Cool, hard stone against his back. He squinted through his good eye, hands raised to cover his face.
"Easy, Chieftain. We are your men."
And they were. The Dúnedain. The fog broke, and Aragorn could have wept. He un-tensed and his hands fell. "Haldor," he mumbled. He looked more clearly at Haldor. The man was worried. "I am unused to company," he said. A poor answer, but he had no other.
"There will soon be more," Haldor answered.
Torches and lamps were lit throughout the cave, and the sound of many men could be heard, even to their corner.
"We are fifty in this cell, more or less," Haldor answered, "but more toil in the mine. I do not know how many: at least three more cells break their fast with us, but I guess there are more. The mine is vast."
"The guards will soon come to take us to the morning meal, and then to work. But we have food here, if you wish…"
The last hung in the air, more question than statement. Do you need it? Have you been fed?
"I can wait." Aragorn answered both the spoken and unspoken questions. Haldor nodded, and ordered Durion, who hovered beside him, to hide the food and water. The young man bowed, and was off. Aragorn watched him go.
"Chieftain—" Haldor began, but he was interrupted by the shouts of "Guards!" The sounds in the cave grew.
Men scrambled to their feet, and the flicker of haste and fear spread through the cave. Haldor rose.
"Chieftain, can you stand?"
Aragorn took the offered hand in reply. His body was stiff, but movement would help rid him of it. The Rangers flocked around him, as they had done the night before.
"Keep close to us." Haldor spoke quickly. "The guards are … easily bored, but at meal-time the other captives pose a greater threat."
"There is not enough food." Aragorn did not need to ask. He let his men herd him out of their room and into the larger cave. A man exchanged glances with Haldor, and a nod, and around the Rangers, more men gathered, taking their places as if trained. Haldor offered nothing to explain.
"We are given one meal a day," he answered Aragorn's statement instead. "One meal, which the guards are supposed to see to that we all eat. Thus we starve more slowly." Haldor reached inside his shirt and brought out a round, wooden disk hanging from a string. "Durion saved it for you. No token, no food. We are given one serving, but the guards are often blind. They check the tokens, not the faces." Aragorn took the disk, and Haldor continued. "Food is also given to each cave, and the guards leave it for us to share amongst ourselves. The more ore we haul, the more food, though other work may yield favours too."
"And that food…?" Aragorn could guess, but he would hear the answer.
"Left inside the door. We are strong enough to take what we need," Haldor answered. "Others are not."
They reached the door. Aragorn could hear footsteps on the other side. They were many, and their strides were heavy. His hearing sharpened by long darkness, he heard the slide of bolts, and the turning of keys. He flinched at the sound. Haldor gave no notice.
From the other side of the cave another group of men arrived. They counted more heads than the Rangers, but half of them — or more — had almost withered away; thin wraiths of men hovering around the stronger core, and at the front one, broad man. He was shorter than the Men of the North, but of stockier build.
His hair was dark, and his eyes a muddled blue-grey. He was the only one in the cave with flesh to spare.
The man stopped when he reached the Rangers, and stood there as if waiting for them to move aside. The Rangers did not budge, and the men around stood with them though they shuffled in unease. The man observed them all, as if counting heads. Then his eye caught sight of Aragorn, the men a guard of honour around him.
He looked Aragorn up and down. Measuring. Weighing. Aragorn stared back. The man avoided his eyes, and turned to Haldor.
"So, Haldor," he said. "You have found your courage. Have you found your wit as well?"
But the door opened, and the guards barked their orders, "Move! Now!" and there was no time for Haldor to answer. Or for Aragorn to hear what he would have said.
"Do not speak so the guards can hear," Haldor whispered, covering his voice under the sound of movement. "And stay close."
"Anything else I should know?" Aragorn's voice was dry, yet his eyes gleamed. Haldor shook his head, but the tone in his Chieftain's words made him look one more time.
Aragorn held himself straight, restored by sleep, and but for one eye — which had blackened and closed during the night — Haldor spotted no hurt. No new hurt, he corrected himself. Slashed to the middle of the chest, the shirt did not hide the burn-mark of the Eye. The Chieftain moved as if it was not there, but Haldor could see that the burn had not healed. He had meant to ask, but now there was no time. The guards were close. Their workday began.
The Rangers moved with purpose. They kept Aragorn surrounded, shielding him from the other captives. And separating him from them. It was a lie, known but not acknowledged. Aragorn, too, felt the comfort of the lie, and clung to it while he gathered himself. The last time he had been surrounded by so many…
Breathe. These are your men.
He followed his men, down the corridor and into a great cave. The walls were roughly hewn but the floor was covered in hard-packed earth, trampled by many feet. Along the walls torches lit up the room, and it was filled with men, and the noise of a crowd. Wooden tables and benches stood in row upon row, filled with eaters. Few looked up from their meal while there still was food in their bowls, but a few watched the Rangers when they came in. Aragorn did not notice, but his men did. Haldor kept close and guided him to the line for food, then to a table, sat him down and gave him a spoon. Aragorn ate. It was a thin gruel, with little grain and less taste, but Aragorn had not been fed since the orcs broke camp the day before.
"They fetched us last today," Taddal muttered. He sat at Aragorn's left hand.
"Faron does not look happy." Haldor, on Aragorn's right, spoke in the same, low voice.
"You met him today." Haldor nodded towards the man; Faron was sitting a few tables down, surrounded by his own men, the stronger close, the weaker further away, and Aragorn recognised him. "He was one of Prince Imrahil's men-at-arms, but now he has the favour of the guards. Today it failed him. I know not why."
"I can guess," Aragorn said. The lie was still around him, promising safety. "My ill favour is greater than his good. The orcs were not happy to have their sport taken from them."
"Not the orcs alone." Taddal ate with bowed head, yet his eyes saw much.
"Not all orcs have sallow skin."
The lie was close to breaking. Aragorn could hear it in Haldor's voice.
"They fear the mark of the Eye," he said. "Or the commander's wrath should they not heed it. They will not touch me." He added under his breath: "Not without leave."
Haldor said nothing, but Aragorn could see some of the tension leave him.
Through the rest of the meal the lie lasted. The Rangers always ate together, and they chose the tables and benches near the walls, but this day all those tables were taken. Haldor stayed close, and the Rangers kept their Chieftain between them. Even without the rangers, none of the other captives would have been able to come near: Thalion kept them at bay with the men he had gathered. Both the guards and the other prisoners noted the change: Thalion had kept to himself before, and never had the Rangers kept so close. And never since he gathered strength, had Faron and his men so carefully avoided them.
It was Gorgol, the captain of the orcs, who took it upon himself to shatter the lie.
"You! Tark!" he barked. The Rangers and the men of Gondor looked up, but the orc ignored them and focused on the one that did not.
"Too high and mighty for the likes of us, eh? Do not worry, majesty," he mocked, "we have just the place for you."
Aragorn did not answer. He scraped the last of his gruel from the bottom of the bowl. The sound of wood dragging over wood filled the cave, then Aragorn lifted the spoon and swallowed one last time. He put the spoon down before he raised his head. One eye blackened and swollen shut, but the orc captain could not endure the gaze of his other.
"No place is more fitting," Aragorn said, "than among my people."
His voice was even and measured, and in the silence of the room his words could clearly be heard by all. The Rangers gave no sign, but the Men of Gondor straightened and even the weakest of them felt, in that moment, strong.
"You belong where I tell you, tark!"
"Where I belong and where I must go is not the same thing."
The Rangers rose, but Aragorn motioned them to remain. They did not sit down again, but they made no move to resist when the orcs closed in on their table. Aragorn rose to meet their captain.
Gorgol grabbed Aragorn and hauled him away from the table. Or tried to. Though Aragorn was thinner than he had been, he was tall still and not easily hauled anywhere. Not by a single orc. Aragorn twisted his arm free. He said nothing, and the orc seemed too angry for words. He lifted his hand to strike, but Aragorn faced him without blinking. The cut shirt drew the eyes of the orc to the burn-mark on Aragorn's chest. Unhealed, the Eye was still clear. The captain let his hand fall. Aragorn held his eyes a moment longer, then he said:
"I can walk unaided."
Aragorn ignored the order. The orc captain growled, but Aragorn would not show him fear. Fear would not serve him, though the orc might be pleased to see it. Aragorn had no intention to please him.
The command hung in the air. Aragorn kept his eyes on the commander, Apam, an Easterling. He has taller than most of the orcs, but far shorter than the Dúnedain — whether from the North or South — or even the Rohirrim.
The orc lost his patience and forced Aragorn down until he was kneeling with his hands behind his head. Aragorn held the commander's eyes, as if nothing the orc did mattered.
Commander Apam did not turn away or avert his eyes. Few of the enemy had been able to hold Aragorn's gaze for long, but this commander did. He sat on a chair beside a desk filled with scrolls and pergaments.
"I hope you have had a restful night, Elessar," the commander said. His voice, like his bearing, was calm and unyielding.
Aragorn did not answer. The stone was hard underneath his knees, but worn smooth by many feet.
"The Great Lord — His name be blessed — has shown you great mercy. Yet you will repay courtesy with rudeness?"
The commander's face was clam, he did not raise his voice, but the orc-captain shook Aragorn.
"Captain Gorgol." Nothing more, and the orc stopped. "Elessar," the commander continued, "will you not speak?"
"Courtesy is more than words," Aragorn answered. "I have yet to encounter it under the Shadow."
"You will learn to recognise it soon enough." Still that calm voice. "And to speak courteous in answer. For now it is enough that you see and listen." He turned, but Aragorn did not think it was to avoid his eyes. From the desk he picked up a pergament, and then turned back.
"All the workers in this mine are here to atone for their crimes against the Great Lord - may His wisdom guide us all."
Aragorn said nothing, did nothing. He did not even strain against the orc's hold, but his eyes darkened.
"I have been charged with the overseeing of this atonement, and to help any who are willing to change their ways to do so. For the Great Lord is the bringer of gifts, and His mercy extends even to His most stubborn and evil enemies.
"You, Elessar, being a hostage, are not except from either work or any other rule, but I have been given instructions." He paused, and watched Aragorn, but Aragorn refused to show him his thoughts.
"As you have understood, the Great Lord — may His reign never end — do not wish that you suffer bodily harm during your stay, for the Lord — wise beyond measure is He — will not break the promise He has given your Steward."
Aragorn did not move, but still the commander must have seen something in his face.
"You will work and obey as the others do," he said. "Do not think otherwise."
"My thoughts are my own," Aragorn answered.
At this, Aragorn's lips curled, and the commander blinked.
"I come from Barad-dûr," Aragorn said. "Do you think I will fear you and your orc?"
"I am not without resources," the commander said. "And there are other ways to make a man obey, than by pain of the body."
"You think your master has not tried them?"
The commander regarded Aragorn for a time. "The Great Lord — may His guidance never leave us — is wise," he said. "And I can not compare with His wisdom. But your men are here.
"Captain Gorgol, tell me about the meal."
Aragorn spoke before the orc could: "I understand the threat well enough. Sauron did not send me here on a whim, nor did you act on one when you sent me to a cell which holds so many of my men." He paused, and his eyes hardened. "But you are mistaken if you think you can use them against me. Sauron knows this."
"You care so little for your men?"
No repercussion for speaking out of turn. The commander must have gotten something he wanted. Take care.
Even so, Aragorn straightened. He might have been on his knees, but it did not matter: the commander drew back, and his eyes flickered.
"I am a hostage," Aragorn said. "Before the walls of Cair Andros I bade the men resist, and not heed any threats to my life or body. Before the walls of Minas Tirith, I would have done the same. I will not make my men live knowing they have been used against me." And I promised, and not to Faramir alone. But that Aragorn held to himself. He had already said too much.
The commander recovered quickly. "I see that you have still to learn." He rose. "Bring him."
The Orc hoisted Aragorn to his feet. "I saw you with your men, tark," he said. His breath was hot against Aragorn's skin, and his grip was strong. Aragorn had no leverage to break free from him. "I saw how they looked, how they moved and acted. Proud, but that pride is in vain. You'll see." The commander had already left the room, but the captain held Aragorn back. "I will break every one of them, and you will help me do it."
Aragorn shook his head. "I will never break by your hand. You think Sauron will reward you? You can not even raise your hand to me."
"That's your mistake. One day the commander will order punishment, and I will be there to deliver it. I'll get to tan your hide, tark, and you will learn to fear my hand."
"I have seen things far more fearsome than you."
"Captain Gorgol!" The commander stood in the door. "I gave an order."
The orc cursed, but kept his voice too low for the commander to hear. He pushed Aragorn forward. He had to let go of him at the same time, and Aragorn slipped his hands forward over his head. He followed the commander, not wanting to give the orc an excuse to grab him again.
The tunnels twisted and turned, but they were well lit. The commander did not turn to see if he followed, but the orc-captain walked close behind; Aragorn guessed the commander did not need to check.
They did not walk for long until the commander stopped. Another room, or cave, lay on the left. The door was closed, but the commander needed no key to open it. Again, he did not check whether Aragorn followed, and Aragorn hesitated at the door. The orc made sure he did not hesitate too long.
Smoke filled his eyes — the sour smoke of bad torches. The cave was full of them, and despite the spluttering lights, Aragorn could see. He could see well enough to understand what the cave was.
The floor was rough, full of uneven, sharp edges. Aragorn did not wait for the orc to kick his feet from under him.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Some fights were not worth fighting.
The orc grabbed the chain of his manacles and forced them back up above his head. He held it, and Aragorn's hair, in the same grip. For good measure.
"Most punishments are public," the commander said. "We find that it helps build discipline."
The idea was not unknown to him; the armies of Rohan and Gondor did the same.
"The punishments differ according to the infractions, of course," Commander Apam continued. "The most common is a few strikes with whip or stick. Enough to drive the lesson through. I am sure you are familiar with the proceedings."
Aragorn did not answer; there was no reason to.
"But do not fear. Unless my orders change, this is not a punishment which you will be subjected to." The commander spoke as if informing Aragorn that he would not be expected to eat with the commoners. "But, we also have other means of correction, for when a prisoner's ability to work is not to be hindered.
"Are you familiar with its use?"
The orc pulled on Aragorn's hair, forcing him to look at the cage that stood in the middle of the room.
Breathe in, breathe out.
"I see that you are." Commander Apam did not need further answers, and Aragorn gave none.
"We have one at the entrance to the mines proper, so that the workers can witness any punishment: this one is for more private corrections. I believe that Captain Gorgol has one at the orc's quarters as well, and I am sure he can find one to bring to my office, should it be needed."
Commander Apam said nothing more. He watched Aragorn, and waited.
He cannot move. The darkness is all around him, thick and heavy. Tendrils of fear creeping through the walls; unnatural fear of pale green and wraiths. Suffocating him, seeking entrance to his mind, hammering against his thoughts. And he can not move!
Some fights are not worth fighting.
Aragorn swallowed. "I see."
"It is well that you do." The commander nodded and the captain let Aragorn go. "Take him away. I am sure you can find a task fitting our Lord's — may His mercy never leave us —hostage."
When the Chieftain made to follow the orcs, Haldor moved. He did not known what he would do – he had no plan – but he knew he could not let the orc-guards take the Chieftain away. Not so soon. Not without trying. Aragorn stopped him with one word. He was Chieftain still, and King, if the guards spoke truth, and Haldor obeyed. He caught a flash in the Chieftain's eye as he sat down. Gratitude? Or relief? Haldor did not know.
But he sat, obedient, and did nothing, while Aragorn followed the orcs. The others followed his example. Taddal took the Chieftain's bowl, to retrieve his token with his own. They all refused to think he would not need it.
All that day, if day it was, Haldor toiled in the mines. He had been ordered to dig for ore, and for this once he would gladly have pushed the wagons that brought ore and slag up to the upper levels to be sorted. That task was the worst: alone and chained to the cart the prisoners were helpless. But Haldor would gladly have risked it – they were helpless wherever they worked, he argued to himself – for the chance of glimpsing his Chieftain: the wagons moved all over the mines.
Instead, Haldor was stuck at the lower levels of the mine. Thalion worked close by, and Taddal beyond that. The rest of the workers were from other cells. Most of them Men of Gondor.
They worked in silence, hours by backbreaking hours, until they had no strength left for anything but the next stroke. Still Haldor worried, and no weariness could drive the worry away.
It was not until work ended, and they all were returned to the cells, that his worry faded. Not until he saw his Chieftain again.
The Chieftain was in the cell when Haldor came, one of the last to make it back from work. The guards had kept Haldor longer than any of the other workers, but they had not touched him. Haldor's worry for his Chieftain drove all worry for himself away, and it was not until later he wondered why they had left him untouched.
Two Rangers stood guard at the entrance of their small cave. They were blocking Thalion, keeping him from entering. He turned to Haldor when he approached, but Haldor ignored him. He only nodded to the two Rangers and closed his ears to Thalion's words; all he thought of, was to find his Chieftain.
Aragorn sat by the wall, close to the place he slept the night before. The other Rangers kept close, shielding him from all other eyes. They shared what water there was, but few talked. Haldor could not see any new marks on his Chieftain, and to his relief the iron had been taken off his hands, if not his legs. They all wore foot-irons, though.
"Chieftain, are you well?" Haldor needed to be sure. He crouched down in front of Aragorn, and Aragorn looked up at him.
"Are you all here?" he asked. "Every ranger have asked me the same – and I think the rest of the men here would as well if you would let them near – and I do not wish to tell my tale more than once."
Before Haldor could answer, Thalion spoke from behind the wall of Rangers, his voice loud and refusing to go unheard:
"My Lord King! We would also wish to hear, both of the King's health and what tidings the King might have to share."
Haldor rose to face Thalion. "We have spoken before," he said. He had caught the wince on the Chieftain's face. But before he could speak on, his Chieftain interrupted.
"I need no spokesman, Haldor." Aragorn rose and walked up to Thalion; the rangers parted to let him through. "Do you speak for the others here?" he asked. His voice was rough, all gravel and sand. "I have no voice to speak for long, or to all at once."
Thalion bowed "I can speak to the rest, Lord King."
"What is your name?" Aragorn asked
Thalion straightened. "I am Thalion son of Hadron, my lord," he answered. "I was a knight of Dol Amroth."
"Prince Imrahil is a noble man," Aragorn said. "Join us, Thalion son of Hadron: knight of Dol Amroth."
"My King Elessar," Thalion answered, and bowed. "Lord Imrahil would not serve a lesser man: accept my service in his name. As I am able, I will serve."
Haldor did not miss how the Chieftain winced at the title, but Aragorn said nothing. He turned and sat down by the wall again. Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned his head against his knees and waited until they all had settled around him. Haldor gestured four of the rangers to stand guard; while none besides Thalion had approached them, Haldor still did not trust any but his men to come close.
"What can you tell me?" Aragorn lifted his head and looked at Haldor.
"Less than you can tell us, Chieftain," Haldor answered. "On the day after the battle, those of us deemed fit enough, were set to clean the battle-field: to sort through and bury the dead. Four days I laboured there, sorting through the dead, before the enemy decided that the field was clean enough. The carrion-crows and the ravens grew fat while we worked, feasting on the fallen." He paused, lost in his memories. "I found Seron on the first day. He lay at the foot of the slag-hills, fallen in the first lines."
"Who else did you find?" Aragorn asked. Who else do we know is dead?
"I found none other of those that rode south with us," Haldor answered. "But only ten have I seen since the battle, and we do not know what fate the rest met." He hesitated. "One other I found from the North. Buried under a hill-troll on the slope he lay, the hobbit. Crushed by the weight."
Aragorn bent his head again. His hands clenched. Haldor waited, but the Chieftain did not speak, not even to urge him on. Haldor continued.
"I brought him to one of the pools. Both he and Seron rests beneath the waters: the carrion-birds will not disturb them."
Aragorn nodded, but he did not raise his head.
"Hadron and Marad we also know are dead," Haldor continued. "And Rhíhul died not two weeks ago, if our reckoning is right; we cannot tell the days for sure down here." He paused again, uncertain of whether he should speak on. Aragorn said nothing, did not move, but his unspoken question Haldor could not escape:
Who else is dead?
"Of the Dwarf or the Elf we have heard nothing." Some names Haldor dared not speak, even now. "And the fate of the sons of Elrond…"
"I found an Elf on the battle-field," Thalion interrupted. Haldor would have reproached him — or at least glared — had he had the heart to do so.
"He lay halfway to the Teeth." Thalion continued as if he was glad to tell his tale. "Orcs lay fallen around him, strewn like leaves around the trees in autumn. His hair was dark, but if he bore any device or sign I could not see it; the mud of the field covered him."
"Elladan," Aragorn said. The Chieftain did not raise his head. "It was Elladan, son of Lord Elrond."
Aragorn ignored the question. He raised his head to look at Thalion. "Where did you bury him?"
"I did not." Thalion met Aragorn's gaze, but his voice was heavy: that much sense he had. "I could not. I brought him to the carts, but there were two orcs among the guards; when they saw the body, they cried in glee and carried him away. I did not see them again."
Aragorn closed his eyes. His knuckles whitened, and his hands shook slightly.
"Chieftain?" Haldor asked again.
Aragorn opened his eyes, but they were distant; he saw into memories, but what memories Haldor could not tell. When he spoke, his voice did not tremble or hitch, but it was dead.
"Elrohir told me of his brother's death. Less than a month ago I guess it was, though I could not count the days. He said he had never expected to outlive his brother by so long."
"Lord Elrohir still lives?" Haldor asked. "Chieftain, where…?"
"No," Aragorn answered. He crossed his arms, hid this hands underneath his armpits. "They are both dead, now." He made as if to say more, but stopped himself and fell silent, and the Rangers did not press him. Even Thalion waited in silence. But Aragorn never spoke of Elrohir again, save to one. When he broke the silence, it was to speak of other things; of Imrahil and the healer and the fall of Minas Tirith.
"I do not know how much time has passed since our defeat," he said. "I was taken to the Dark Tower after Midsummer, but I do not know how long they kept me there."
"By the time of work and the time of rest, we reckon that half a year has already passed," Haldor answered.
"Chieftain," Taddal said. "Why were you held in Minas Tirith for so long?"
"Lord Imrahil and I were brought to ensure the Steward's surrender." Aragorn's voice was flat.
"But he surrendered long before Midsummer. Forgive me, Chieftain, but there must be more to that tale."
"Yes," Aragorn answered, "but I will not speak of it."
And he did not. It was not until later that they learned about the coronation, and not from the King Elessar himself. He asked them instead to tell what had happened to them after the first night, and how they had come to this mine. Haldor spoke for them, telling of the long walk when they were forced, chained in rows, to march across the Dark Land.
"I was not questioned," Haldor said. "Perhaps they did not see the need. I was sent here and put to work at once; they did not even ask me my name, but branded me with a number."
"We all were," Durion broke in. "The healers sorted us by strength and injuries, and now we are but bodies to toil and sweat and increase the Enemy's hoard."
Aragorn shook his head. "To strengthen his armies and weapons: it is iron we dig, not gold."
Haldor nodded. "At first there were only Men here, old slaves or prisoners from the battle. Not all have survived, but since then, more slaves have arrived. It is hard to tell time here with no sun or moon, but I guess it was some months after our defeat.
"The new slaves are Elves, Chieftain. They keep us apart, but during the work our paths sometimes cross close enough to see."
"Do you know where they are from?" Aragorn asked.
"Some of them," Haldor answered. "I recognised an elf from lord Elrond's household, and a few looked like they could have been from the Golden Wood. But if people from both Imladis and Lothlórien have been captured…?"
"Both Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel and in the Enemy's hands," Aragorn said. "I have seen them." He unfolded his arms, and rubbed his wrists. The skin was red and shafted, but unbroken. Haldor wondered how long he had borne chains: there were marks which told of wounds and healing.
"The Enemy must have had troops further north already," Aragorn continued, "or the North would not have fallen as quick. I have heard no tidings of Mirkwood, or of Dain's kingdom or Dale, but that means little. What I was told, was not to bring tidings."
"And can we trust what have been told?"
"Not all. The Mouth told me that Éomer King had fallen, but I learned later that it was not so. He escaped, as I had hoped, and brought warning to Minas Tirith. The Lady Éowyn and Merry, the hobbit, went with him when he fled further, and with him went those that could." Aragorn let his hands rest, and leant back against the wall. "I do not think Rohan has fallen yet.
"But these are matters we can do little about. What of this place? How many work in the mine, and how many guards are there?"
"We work in shifts," Haldor answered. "It is impossible to tell how many prisoners there are here. This cell, and each in this corridor I guess, holds at least fifty men, but I do not know how many cells there are. And there are other corridors. There could be hundreds of us; I have not seen all the tunnels of the mine."
"When we work, it looks like there are one or two guards on duty for any ten of us."
"Too few to watch us all at once, then," Aragorn said. "And the tunnels and shafts are narrow and dark."
Aragorn did not answer. "Where are we now?" he asked instead. "I… could not see the way."
"The Ash Mountains," Haldor said. "Five or six days' march south-east the Tower. I think; the sun was hidden." He caught a glint in his Chieftain's eye, the first since he had been returned to them. He winced. "We are deep into the Dark Land," he said. "The Ered Lithui…"
"I know," Aragorn answered. His eyes hardened. "It can still be done."
"With luck perhaps one or two could escape the mine, and even keep hidden long enough to reach the outer mountains," Haldor concurred. "But then? Even if the mountains can be travelled, there will be no food or water."
Badhor interrupted: "Better to die up there, than to live here."
Haldor turned to Badhor. "Death is easy," he said. "And easy to find in this place. Have you not been there yet; at the edge of the shaft plunging down so deep, it could as well have been the chasm beneath the bridge of Khazad-dûm? Where the upward draft of air is hot and sulphurous as a dragon's breath? I have. I have seen the darkness of that pit, and smelled that air, and knew that one more step, one small step will free me from these chains. One step, and I am flying on the warm air, and the guards cannot stop me."
He fell silent, but Badhor answered: "I have. I stood there with my brother by my side.
"He stepped. I remain."
Thanks, as always, goes to the wonderful people on Garden of Ithilien and my beta JAUL who helps me weed out those pesky mistakes. If any remains, they are entirely my own fault. I also need to thank the people on Writers Anonymous who helped me with making up my mind on the later events.
I also want to thank Nath for sending corrections for the last chapter. I have not gotten the time to fix them yet, since I wanted to concentrate on getting this chapter out, but I will get to it.