11. This Shall Too
The council — if council it could be called — ended soon after Badhor fell silent. Much was left unsaid, and the unsaid words hung around them, known but unacknowledged. Most of the Rangers rose, but Thalion lingered. Aragorn had closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall. He did not stir when Thalion cleared his throat to speak, and both Haldor and Taddal glared at the knight. He rose.
"I will bring these tiding to the rest," he said. Haldor was sure those were not the words he wished to say.
Aragorn nodded, but did not open his eyes. Thalion still bowed to him. "My lord king."
Haldor sat close to the Chieftain, close enough to feel him flinch, though his face showed little. But he opened his eyes and answered: "Thalion, son of Hadron. Would that your father named you well."
Thalion did not answer, but he bowed once more and turned to leave. Taddal rose as well, and followed Thalion to the entrance, leaving Haldor with the Chieftain. The Chieftain closed his eyes again, and while Haldor wished to leave, one look from Taddal made him stay.
It should not be me.
Now, more than ever, he wished Halbarad had not died. This task was his, not Haldor's. But there were no other. Haldor missed his brother. Younger, perhaps, but closer to the Chieftain, and higher in rank. And less tongue-tied. None of them were here. The Chieftain said nothing, and Haldor knew that if he did not find the words to speak, the Chieftain would not volunteer his.
But it was the Chieftain who broke the silence.
"Captain," he said. Haldor winced at the title.
Who had told?
"You have gained a new title in my absence, it seems," the Chieftain continued. "I do not recall bestowing it."
"There was need," Haldor replied. "There was no other."
He turned his eyes away from his Chieftain and watched the Rangers. Taddal stood by the entrance with the men on guard, talking in a low voice. Filling them in. The others kept their distance, preparing for the evening meal. Durion had already fetched the food from its hiding-place, and Belith… Belith had lit a fire, small and with little smoke. The wood would not last much longer, but it was dry. The light from the flames flickered over his face, chasing the shadows over his features. In the flicker, Belith's face looked right.
"No other?" the Chieftain echoed. "I see Belith, doing kitchen-duty."
The voice was still low, but now the steel was clear. The Chieftain said no more, his silence a demand that Haldor explain.
"Chieftain, I…" Haldor faltered, but the Chieftain did not fill up the silence. Haldor had to fill it himself. But he could not find the words, though he searched, and the Chieftain did not help, he just waited, the demand hanging over Haldor until words forced their way out his mouth. The wrong words.
"I am not the only one who has gained a new title, my lord."
The silence changed, became hard and tense. Haldor winced, cursing the words he had not even known he would say before he heard his own voice.
"I am your Chieftain still, Haldor."
"Lord, I spoke out of turn."
The tension faded, but the steel remained. "Tell me," the Chieftain said. "Tell me that which none of you would say in Thalion's hearing."
"It should not be me: the story should be Belith's to tell," Haldor said, "but he can no longer tell it."
"I did not see him until this evening." The steel softened in the Chieftain's voice. "He has kept away from me, and you all have made sure he could."
"He…" Haldor faltered. "You will see, though it will cause him pain, I think. He no longer speaks, but sometimes we can glimpse, behind his eyes, his old self. Locked in, where he cannot even scream. And we can do nothing to help."
The Chieftain's voice softened further. "I do not know if I could, either. Not without athelas. And not without knowing what has happened."
Haldor turned to look at his Chieftain. He had opened his eyes and met Haldor's gaze. Haldor looked away, but found his words.
"We were betrayed," Haldor began. "We do not know by whom, but it happened not long after Thalion arrived. I do not know why so many of us were gathered together, but it made us the stronger.
"Belith led us. Faron had no followers yet —it was too early and we were all lost. Only our bond and Belith's strength kept us together those first days. And our old purpose held when all else failed: to keep evil at bay though hope and light would fade. The guards, the orc-captain especially, were not happy, but we broke none of the rules imposed on us. Among the prisoners, some sought to win favours from us with flattery, and some, of whom Faron became the chief, gathered strength against us.
Food was the main conflict, never enough to feed us all. On Belith's order we shared it among us, making sure all would have equal share though many tried to secure a larger part."
"Hunger makes even good men desperate," the Chieftain said.
Haldor risked a new glance. The Chieftain sat as before, with eyes closed, and to Haldor it seemed as if the darkness around him grew thicker. That his eyes were closed against the dark rather than the light.
"True." Still, Haldor would not speak against Belith's choice. "Yet how can one eat while others starve?"
"Out of their sight." But the Chieftain's voice was tired and despondent. He sighed. "I cannot fault Belith in this, nor you in choosing otherwise — not before I hear the tale in full."
Haldor nodded. "Thalion were among those who sought to gain our trust. Perhaps we gave it too willingly, but we are few, and Thalion asked no favours. Faron seemed to us the greater threat, more than the guards who mainly saw us to work, and left us to our own once the work was past. And there is little love lost between Thalion and Faron. Faron was but a common soldier of Dol Amroth, and Thalion a knight.
"But we were betrayed. One day the orc-captain claimed we planned rebellion, that someone in this cell had told him of our plans. We do not know whom, but the Commander believed him. Some of our words had been reported; they were not unfounded accusations."
"Not unfounded, or not untrue?" The Chieftain opened his eyes again, and caught Haldor with them, seeking the truth.
"We were not ready to accept defeat," Haldor answered. "But rebellion… We saw quickly that we are too few. Even if the whole of this cell would unite, the guards are too many, and we too weak. Though even talking of a rebellion discarded is too dangerous to admit, other words are more dangerous still: you are not the first to think of escape." Even here, among the Rangers, Haldor's voice lowered to a whisper. Rebellion would bring punishments, but talk of escape could bring their hopes to naught.
The Chieftain nodded, but spoke more of it. "What happened?"
"We were questioned, each apart, but none of us would speak. Three of us they held for more than a week, and we knew not their fate all of that time. Of the three, only Belith is left."
"Who were the others?" The Chieftain sounded like one who could guess the answer, but still needed to ask.
"Marad and Hadron. Hadron we never saw again. Marad was returned to us with Belith, but he would not speak of the manner of Hadron's death. The Orc flogged them before our eyes as a warning to us all ere they sent us to our work. I do not remember the commander's words or the sentence, but I remember the glee of the Orc. Its eyes gleamed, and it relished our pain as it wielded the whip.
"At work's end, we found them lying on the floor, senseless, just inside the door. If the healer had seen them, he had done little to help them heal. Rhíhul did what he could, but the orcs had used them ill." Haldor paused. It was still too short a tale, but he could not bear to speak more fully. Nor, he guessed, would the Chieftain bear to hear. "The power shifted fully to Faron then. We had no heart to stop him, and barely enough to secure food for ourselves.
"The decision was mine. Faron might be strong, but he fears us still; he will not risk provoking us, or back us into a corner, but I do not trust our strength to stand against him. He leaves us alone, and we him."
"And now you are but another group of tugs?" the Chieftain asked. His voice was low and tired.
"I hope not."
At the other end of the room, Belith had withdrawn into the shadows, leaving Durion alone with the meal. The fire burnt with little smoke, one small blessing the guards had not denied them; the wood was dry. They did not have to choose between cooking-fires and air.
Aragorn kept his eyes closed; it was still easier, despite the work-day. He could hear the men move around him, could smell the clean wood-smoke and the cooking of supper.
"We always sought to stay evil, Haldor, and never to be known or praised." Harsher words lurked in his throat, but Aragorn could not yet bring himself to speak them.
"Even in the Wild, we would protect ourselves at need," Haldor answered. "And this is not the Wild; we cannot disappear from sight. We lost our heart, Chieftain, and it should never have been me in this place."
There was a pause, and Aragorn could hear Haldor move. He opened his eyes to see Haldor kneel before him.
"Release me, Chieftain." Haldor's head was bowed and his hair hid his face. "I have angered you."
Aragorn looked at him, and at the Rangers in the room around. He saw their weariness and sorrow. He saw Belith hiding in a corner, curled up like a night-frightened child. But he also saw how soft the others moved around him. He saw Durion's young face smile as he stirred the pot. He saw Taddal's back, straight and proud, standing guard at the opening to the cave. He turned back to Haldor.
"Captain," he said, and there was no anger in his voice. "The men chose you, and I could not have chosen better."
Haldor lifted his head to look at Aragorn. "Chieftain," he said, "it should not be me. My brother, or your kinsman…"
"They are not here."
Haldor bowed his head once, and lifted it to meet Aragorn's face once more. Aragorn sat up straighter. No longer leaning on the wall, he bent forward and grasped Haldor's shoulder.
"The Dúnedain do not give their trust lightly, nor in vain, Haldor."
"There was need," Haldor answered, "but no longer."
"I still have need," Aragorn said. "Sauron did not send me here on a whim, nor does he plan for me to die here, a forgotten hostage among forgotten slaves. I need a captain in whom I can trust."
Haldor bowed his head. "If that be your wish."
Aragorn sat back. He did not close his eyes, though even the low light still pained his eyes, lest Haldor would think himself dismissed. The stone was cold and the floor hard, but he was too tired to squat. Haldor did not move.
"Do not kneel before me." Aragorn's voice was soft. "The enemy delight in seeing us upon our knees often enough. And you have not finished your tale."
Haldor shrugged. "There is little left to say." He moved to sit with his legs crossed. "After many days, Belith stirred, mute and broken, as if he never fully woke. He makes no sound, but Rhíhul could find no hurt to cause his silence."
"Not all hurts are of the body, or easily overcome." Aragorn spoke like unto one who knows. His hands fisted on his knees.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Haldor had fallen silent, and when Aragorn opened his eyes, he met Haldor's, close and worried. Aragorn hid his eyes again, but Haldor did not move away.
"Chieftain, what has he done to you?"
And was not this, too, what he needed a captain for?
"We feared for you," Haldor said. "We feared for the manner of your death, or that the Enemy would have some worse plan for you."
But speaking of it meant remembering. Meant speaking of what Aragorn would forget. And Haldor was right: Aragorn would not have chosen him. Not before. He would not have chosen Belith either, had there been choice.
Halbarad, he thought, I have need of you. But he could not wish his kinsman to life. There were no others; those, too, were dead.
"Finish your tale first. What of Marad?"
"He recovered," Haldor answered. "At least it seemed so, though his hands shook even at rest, and he walked with a limp. But he spoke, and while his eyes would flicker, he would meet ours. We kept our worry for Belith, though we tried to shield them both. But some hidden hurt haunted Marad, and in the end he sought the only escape left. Badhor was with him, yet the did not stay his brother."
Aragorn remembered Badhor's words; he did not press Haldor to speak further of Marad's end. For a time he sat, just listening to the sounds of the men. Soft whispers and softer feet.
"Chieftain, what is the Enemy's plan?"
Had Haldor learned from Halbarad? To never let Aragorn forget the question he did not wish to answer?
"Aragorn." Aragorn did not open his eyes, but his voice was firm. "Use my name." Haldor did not answer at once, and Aragorn opened his eyes to look at him. "I need someone to whom I am other than Chieftain."
Haldor hesitated, as if he wanted to protest, but he was Dúnadan. He knew better. "Aragorn," he said. He spoke slowly, as if the name was strange on his tongue, but he spoke it. "Aragorn. What have you not told?"
Aragorn smiled. The tension left his face for one moment before it returned. When he began to speak, his voice was low; it did not carry beyond the two of them.
"I was not put to torment much," Aragorn began. "Not of the body."
Aragorn shoot him a look, and Haldor winched. "Chieftain, I am sorry, but… 'I was only tortured a little'? That is…"
Aragorn laughed. No more than a chuckle, but it was a laugh. "Haldor," he said. "Perhaps it should not have been you, but you will do. You will do." His chuckle died, and he turned away once more.
"You would find scars on my back, were you to look," he admitted, "but most of my torments did not leave scars. Most of my time I spent alone, in the dark."
"This was the worse?" Haldor sounded relieved. Rangers could spend months alone in the wild, if need arose.
"It was bad enough." Not like the wild. "But not all. And not the worse."
And Haldor said nothing. He must have learned that from Halbarad too; though Haldor often was tongue-tied, this silence was like Halbarad's: waiting until Aragorn was ready to speak. But the cell was dark, and Aragorn had no wish to remember. Not now. Not yet. Not when he was yet unused to company. Unused to not being alone. They sat, and neither spoke until Haldor could not bear the silence; Aragorn was more stubborn than he.
"Tell me of today," he asked. "If the worst can not be told, ease our fear and tell what that Orc-captain had in mind today. You seem unhurt?"
"And I am. He dared not touch me: the Commander was very clear. You need not fear for me."
"Where were you, then? You worked alone."
Aragorn smiled. It was a crooked smile, and not without scorn. "Captain Gorgol," Aragorn said, "thinks himself cunning. He cannot touch me without risking his skin, so instead he sought to punish me by other means."
"He is good at that," Haldor remarked. "Your words does not comfort me, Chieftain."
"This time he misjudged his prey, then," Aragorn replied. "He ordered me to clean out the cesspits."
"He had you shovelling out the waste?"
"Unpleasant, I grant, but I have had such duty before: let it not be said that the Dúnedain spoil their Chieftains."
He smiled, and Haldor smiled back, relieved that nothing worse had befallen. Unpleasant, indeed, but with less danger than most other work in the mines. He wondered if the orcs knew that the duty was more coveted than much other tasks: lighter work than digging stone, and the worker was given time to wash when the day was done. And the smell kept the guards at distance. He shook his head. The orc could not know.
Too caught in his own relief, Haldor did not notice when Aragorn's mood changed. Despite his will, darkness crept into his mind and memory. Aragorn shuddered, half to shake it off, but the darkness did not abate. It was not real: a word could dispel it, but though he knew, for a while the words did not come.
Darkness. Silence. No way to tell night from day, or count the hours passing. No way to know when food or water next will come. At times he laughs to think of it: this is the torments he feared? This is the best Sauron could think of to break him?
But it is.
When he begins to long for the guards to come, not for the food or water they would bring but for their meagre company, then he knows that the torment is well chosen. When he scrambles to the door to listen to the orcs pass by, he know that it can break him.
And when fear pours from the wall of his prison, he can no longer think at all.
It is there, always. Whispering in his mind. In his ears. Dark against dark. Not to be seen – for how can one see in darkness so thick that even the eyes of the orcs can not pierce it? – but it is there. Always.
The floor is cold and damp beneath him, and he is numb, and he can feel the dark seep out of the walls. Thin tendrils of shadowed mist, seeking him; covering him with their nets. Even in the darkness he sees them, feels them stealing over him, sapping him of warmth, of strength. Of will. Covering him in rigid stone.
Breathe in, breathe out.
But he cannot. He must move, cannot let the stone cover him and harden. And he cannot. Even as he fights and screams, only muffled sounds – far too weak to be heard beyond the door – escape him, until, at last, he must rest. And he slips back into dreams.
Until he wakes. And cannot move.
The ground underneath him is cold. Hard stone and chains; not even earth. No light. And behind the door, the shadows wait. No use rising. No use moving. But he moves nonetheless, to ease the ache in his bones.
Food and water is pushed into the cell through a hatch. How he does not know, but even when the hatch opens, no light can be seen. He moves as much as the chains allow, and tries not to think. Not even of that which has given him comfort before.
Then thought itself leaves him. Words leave him, and there is only the cold stone and his body. Breathing and thirst.
Those are the times he is at peace.
The stone cold and hard, comforting and solid under him. No fear of falling, not here. He is already fallen and can fall no further than the hard stone at the centre of the world.
And he closes his eyes against the dark, and his mind against the shadowed whispers and the fear. There, safe for a while behind the lids of his eyes, he sees light, and sun, and green grass growing, and hears the laughter of clear voices. The whispers drown and dwindle into a distant hiss.
Aragorn gathered his courage, and at last he spoke:
"The palantir did not prepare me."
"To clean out the waste-pits?"
The darkness broke. There was a moment of silence. Haldor's ears had not quite caught up with his mouth before Aragorn broke it, and laughed. At first Haldor did not recognise the sound, a stranger to his ears. And Aragorn's mouth was out of practice. But that changed quickly, and Haldor heard mirth — true, blessed mirth — in his Chieftain's voice.
"Do not ever say your words are wrong, Haldor."
Aragorn was still underground, far from the sun, but he could feel his heart lighten and the Shadow receding from his mind.
Haldor did not understand the source of his Chieftain's mirth, but he took heart in it. For days and weeks thereafter, Aragorn's eyes would sparkle with a teasing mirth that baffled both Haldor and the other captives. The guards noticed it as well, and the orc-captain… the orc-captain would see no light in the eyes of his slaves.
But he could not quell it.
At first Gorgol sought to drive the mirth from him with all the worst tasks he could think of: cleaning out the chess-pits and the orcs' dens; dragging ore from the deepest shafts, digging ore in the deepest shafts. Working double shifts so that Aragorn would stumble in weariness, his strength spent at the end of his day. But Aragorn's eyes kept mocking him. 'Do your worst,' they said. 'You cannot match what I have already lived.'
When Gorgol saw that neither hard nor humiliating work would break that mirth, he sought other ways. Always finding fault in the King's work, always trying to find some slip which he could punish.
But the mark on Aragorn's chest protected him, and Gorgol dared not subject the King to the wanton cruelty he might otherwise have used. If indeed fear it was, and not a part of the Enemy's plans. But whether by order or not, Captain Gorgol found other means with which to thwart the King.
Food became scarce. Haldor had tried to hide from the Chieftain how little they had, and the Chieftain was at first too worn to notice, but he could not make food from air. And no new rations came. The first day late, Haldor did not worry too much; he always rationed the food, for they could never know to the day when they would be given more. Still, with one more mouth to feed, they were running low. Another day passed, and another, and still nothing. Even Faron had little.
Their cell continued to be fetched late for their morning meal. The Rangers had known hunger before, but they had lived at the edge since their capture. Aragorn said nothing, but he insisted on measuring out the food.
Tempers ran higher than usual in the cave, and the pride that had been sensed when Aragorn arrived, slowly dwindled as the hunger grew. Faron sent his men to take what food that were left, but few — other than the Rangers — had any. Thalion gave up his small piece of bread without a fight: they all had learned that whatever the hunger, the hurts were not worth it in the end. No work, no meal.
Faron's men did not try to take from the Rangers, but his anger grew, and so did the fear and desperation of his men. And the Orc knew well how to use anger and fear.
Haldor kept a close eye on his Chieftain, closer than most, but he was not the only one to notice when Aragorn returned from his work favouring his left side. That evening, Thalion stopped Haldor on his way to through the cell.
"What ails the King?"
"I do not know," Haldor answered. "I have not yet spoken with him; I was about to when you stopped me."
They were close to the Rangers' cave. They could both see into it, to the corner where Aragorn knelt by Angbor. The orcs had used him for their sport two nights ago, and the Chieftain had tried – and tried still – to save him the use of his hand. The Rangers stood close, helping when ordered.
"Do not try to keep him for yourself." Thalion echoed his words from the first day. "The only way you can keep the anger at bay, is …"
"Anger?" Haldor interrupted. "You think we do it out of anger?"
"You misunderstand. I do not talk of your anger; I talk of the anger against him. The anger of those that would rather have stayed at their homes, defending their women. The anger of those that only see a foolish attack that was doomed to fail. The anger of those who can find no other to blame for their captivity and pain. Or, at least, no other whom they can even hope to make pay for it. I am talking about the anger of other slaves. Anger that will turn into hate. And then even the Rangers cannot keep the King safe."
Haldor did not know what to say. "You speak of anger and hate, and wish us not to do our best to keep him safe?"
"He is not safe, and unless we learn to know him, like you do, then the anger will grow unchecked." Thalion paused. In the corner, Aragorn was speaking softly to the wounded man, and Thalion nodded towards him. "That is what won Elfstone the heart of Minas Tirith. What little I have been allowed to see of him, tells me that he is great. Greater than any man who now lives. But had I not been allowed to see, to talk with him and know him just a little, I might have hated him instead: at his word we marched to our doom.
"Keep your fellow slaves from him, and they will not see his greatness. If you deny hope to those that have lost all, they will repay in hate. Already it is spreading. And hunger quickens hate, as well you know."
Haldor spat. "The Orc —"
"Captain Gorgol is too clever to defy his Lord. Ask the King who bruised him so he favours his left side. It will not be the captain, though it may well have been on his incitement."
Haldor did not answer, but he turned to seek answers from his Chieftain.
"I am not your enemy," Thalion called after him. "Nor his."
Haldor acknowledged his words with a nod, but he did not turn. He reached the Chieftain in time to hear him say:
"I may have to reset some of the bones, but I cannot tell before the swelling is down. I fear the little finger may never heal, though it should, in time, cease to hurt. But you should not yet work. Haldor will talk with the guard on duty."
"You will not?" Angbor spoke quietly. His breath was shallow and he did not move.
"I fear my plea will not serve you."
Aragorn made to rise, but Haldor was there. He saw the hesitation — the expectance of pain — and stopped him. Aragorn glared.
"Do not ask."
"Thalion wished to know."
"And you have no such desire?" Aragorn huffed, and winced at the movement. Haldor said nothing, but held out his hand. Aragorn accepted his offer.
The Chieftain was lighter than Haldor remembered, lighter than he had expected even though he had seen his sunken face each day. The mirth had hidden it.
"Thalion fears we endanger you," he said. Quickly, before the Chieftain could wave him off. And before he said words he would regret.
The news made Aragorn pause. "Fetch him," he ordered Durion. "And any he wishes to bring; no more than two or three. Haldor, Badhor, Taddal: with me. Angbor needs to rest."
The corner was hidden from view for the rest of the cave. Since the day Aragorn arrived, both he and his men preferred he sleep there, and without Aragorn saying so, or the Rangers asking, it became their custom to keep it for him. Unless invited, none would go near.
Aragorn winced more openly when he sat down. Haldor moved closer, but Aragorn waved him off.
"Nothing is broken," he said. "There is nothing you can treat. We will wait for Thalion."
"Yes, my lord."
The Dúnedain did their best to make sure none overheard them, speaking among themselves to mask any words. Haldor would have preferred thicker walls.
Thalion brought one man, a Rider who had fought in foot in the last battle. He had been separated from his éored before the last, desperate charge.
"This is Hengest, son of Folcred," Thalion said. "He served in King Théoden's household, but when his horse was slain on Pelennor, he would not accept a new one."
"I never was the horseman of my father," Hengest said. "I would not trust an unknown horse in battle, or ask it to trust a rider it did not know."
"Your father, was he the Rittmaster of Thengel King?" Aragorn asked.
Hengest startled. He looked at Aragorn as for the first time. "How did you know?"
"Your father was a fine horseman; he would not have asked a horse to trust an unknown rider in battle, could he help it." Aragorn studied Hengest for a while. "You are young to be his son."
"He married late." Hengest did not elaborate, and Aragorn did not ask. He turned to Thalion.
"Haldor tells me you have concerns?"
"I do, sire," Thalion answered. "About the King's health."
"And I trust your concerns can be availed?"
Thalion paused. The cell filled with the soft breaths of sleeping men, the whispers of the Dúnedain, and the clinking of chains whenever one of them moved.
"My King must decide," Thalion said. "But I see and hear what the Rangers cannot. They try to keep the King to themselves."
"It is our task to keep him safe," Haldor broke in. "Our duty, through generations."
Aragorn silenced him. "Peace, Haldor. We will hear Thalion's words, and judge their merit after." He nodded to Thalion. "Continue."
"I do not claim the same love as the King's northern kin, but some claim I still have, lord." Thalion paused, and shuddered as if cold. His mask of cultured manners slipped. "You raised the sign of Elendil, lord, and it was the name of the Elfstone that led us to the Black Gate. It was that name our heralds proclaimed."
"I have not forgotten," Aragorn said. Haldor winced to hear the darkness in his voice, but Thalion spoke on.
"Yes, my King, but it seems your Rangers has: You claimed us, which gives us claim in return."
Aragorn held him with his eyes. Long they sat unspeaking, and none dared interfere. Thalion flinched, but before he averted his eyes Aragorn released him.
"I accept your claim."
It was right. Haldor knew that it was so; that this was as it should be. And yet… And yet… Aragorn touched his arm and stayed his thought.
"Tell me, Thalion," the Chieftain said. "What danger can you see which we may avert?"
"I fear the danger has already shown itself, my lord. You are hurt." He did not ask, nor did Aragorn deny.
"An …accident… during work. It is a peril we cannot avoid."
"Gorgol is too cunning to risk his own neck," Thalion countered. "The guards did not cause your …accident."
Aragorn's face darkened. "You think me careless?"
"There is anger, and resentment among the prisoners. Before you came, sire, that anger had no aim, no target for release, but now? There are those whose anger turns to you. They blame you for their fate and loss."
"This I cannot change, Thalion." Aragorn sighed. There was no mirth in him now, and his face was of a man, weary of hate and sorrow, who knows there is no rest in sight. Haldor could not recall ever seeing him thus.
"Elessar King," Hengest broke in. "May I speak?"
Aragorn nodded, and Hengest began to speak. He spoke the words strangely and with a tone unlike the men of the North, or South. And when Hengest hesitated and searched for words, Haldor noted it, as he had not before.
"Elessar King," Hengest began. "When you came here, I was angry. Angry, as I had been since the day I woke in chains and knew that we had lost: when I learned your name, my anger ran a-fresh. No longer wasted wrath against a world gone wrong: my anger had an aim. Éomer King I followed, but he fought on your word, for friendship's sake. And you led us to ruin, far from home and hearth.
"When the Shadow overtakes them, my wife and daughter will face it alone. I cannot be with them, and I found my son's horse on the battlefield."
He paused, but Aragorn said nothing, and when Hengest asked if the king had nothing to say, he answered:
"What can I? It is all true."
His voice was tired. Haldor felt the cold creep out of the walls and into his body at the sound. Hengest gaped at Aragorn's answer.
"You… you knew?"
"We all knew our danger!" Haldor could no longer keep his tongue. "If you did not, the fault is on your king."
His name, spoken softly by his Chieftain, stopped him, and he relented. The talk around them dropped to a whisper, barely there. The Dúnedain listened as closely as would any spy. They were tense, no more comfortable with letting a stranger near their Chieftain than Haldor. And they, too, wished to hear Aragorn's answer.
"Your father made me angry often," Aragorn said. If Hengest were surprised to have his father spoken of again, he did not show it. "Folcred thought me no more than a youth of Gondor wanting to impress the girls, and – having failed to join the Citadel Guard – had come to try his luck in Rohan. He was right about my youth, but there was only one woman I have ever wished to impress."
The Dúnedain fell silent around them. Hengest, having not their knowledge, asked:
"It was my hope, once. But her father had conditions yet to be met. I do not know if the Mark has fallen; Éomer king escaped the Gate, and later from Minas Tirith before it fell, and no further news have I heard of him. But the House of her father, where I lived my childhood days, is in the North. It fell before midsummer.
"I could not be there when Rivendell fell."
"Do you know her fate?"
None of them had dared ask, but this Rider did. With no regrets in his voice, but with no anger either. Aragorn laughed, bitter and short.
"The Enemy lies, when it suits his plans," he answered. "I have not seen her, but Sauron holds her father."
He lies curled up by the door when it finally — finally! — opens. The door hits him, and he scrambles away until his back is against the wall. He can hear, but not yet see, someone enter his cell; the light is too bright, and his eyes water. But he can feel him – it? – standing before him. A shape, blurry to eyes long accustomed to the dark, bends over him, and he feels the warmth of a body. The touch of a hand on his cheek. He flinches.
He freezes, not knowing whether to back away from the touch, or press closer.
A voice from his childhood years, soothing a scratched knee, a runny nose, or a night-time fear.
And at the third speaking of that name, the tension in his body breaks. He weeps and grips the hand. Moves it from his face and holds it.
— Estel is dead. His voice is steady, belying his tears. But I would that your art could restore him.
Gentle fingers brushes the tears away, but the words that follow bring no comfort.
— I am your enemy now, Estel. Do you understand? The shadow between us have swallowed me, but you it has not yet mastered.
The Rangers stopped him to ask questions they should already have know, had he had the heart to speak before. He briefly told them what he had learned: that Gandalf bore the last of the Elven Rings, and that the wizard, as the only Guardian unbent, defied Sauron still.
"If Lord Elrond told me true, Gandalf is beyond speech and deed, locked in his fight against the Enemy."
"Can we trust Lord Elrond's word?" It had to be asked, though none of the Rangers wished to think it.
"In this, I trust them," Aragorn said. "Or choose to: Why would Sauron order a lie that would give me hope?"
Elrond laughs. A soft chuckle, more felt than heard. Still, in the darkness of Mordor the sound is clear; even the stones listen and sigh. It eases Aragorn's mind and he smiles. A tired ghost of a smile, but more true than any he has smiled since his capture. In this sound he hears truth.
Lord Elrond frees one of his hands. He presses a water-skin into it and helps Aragorn lift it to his lips. He drinks, his body greedy for the water, cool and soothing. Lord Elrond holds on to the skin, easing his pace.
— Not too quick, he says. Do not fear: you can drink your fill.
Aragorn pushes the water-skin away. Now he laughs, but his laugh is bitter, as bitter as the comfort Lord Elrond offered. Sauron is a clever tormentor, and Aragorn says so.
Lord Elrond flinches at the name. The walls of the cell grow tense and cold and full of fear.
— Shh, Estel! Do not incur His anger.
Aragorn drinks another mouthful of water. Swallows it down, and with it all that clenched at his throat.
— What will his anger do, he asks, that his calm calculation will not do the same?
Lord Elrond does not answer. He lifts again the skin to Aragorn's lips, forcing him to drink or let the water spill. Aragorn can feel Lord Elrond's hands shake. His face is drawn, and when the water-skin lowers, Aragorn asks once more:
— What worse can he do?
— Do not ask me.
Aragorn recognises the voice, and the pain behind Elrond's eyes, and fear returns. Dead, numb fear that bleeds the strength from the body and the will from the mind.
— No, he whispers. No, the Mouth lied… he must have… she… . But he cannot say her name, nor voice his fear.
The water-skin drops from Elrond's hands. Water spills down Aragorn's shirt, into his lap, and he does not move, does not try to catch the skin or stop the water from spilling. It is Elrond who recovers to pick it up again. A little water is left, but Elrond does not offer it.
— I knew He would come for me, Elrond says. When… I knew it was too late for me; He knew me. I could not hide any more. So I sent all who would flee, as many as could be spared, to the Havens. We who stayed, hoped to be able to keep His eye fixed on us, that those who fled might escape, and reach the Havens before it was too late. Arwen…. He falters, and winces as if in pain. But then he shudders, once, and a mask covers his face, and when he continues, Lord Elrond's voice is distant and dead.
— I sent my daughter to the Havens, but the Lord's forces were swift and His plans well-made. The Havens burned before she could reach it, and those fleeing taken or slain. My daughter's escort are all dead.
— And Arwen…? Aragorn can ask no clearer.
— Taken and brought here. I …, and the mask breaks, and Aragorn knows Elrond's voice once more.
— I have not been allowed to see her.
He will not be sick. Not this time. Not…
"You knew her danger," Hengest said. "And still led us to a battle without hope."
"Hiding would not have saved us!" It was the first time Aragorn raised his voice, sharp and stern. A brief flash of the King, then Aragorn closed his eyes, and sighed.
"The only hope was to keep Sauron's eye on us." He opened his eyes and looked at Hengest. "This is why the heralds proclaimed the name of King Elessar: to make the Enemy blind to all else. Our hope never was in strength of arms, nor in armies, but in the destruction of the One Ring. We sent it to the fires to be destroyed, and knew the Bearer had reached Ithilien and had not been caught when the dark began to spread. We hoped to be bait to the Eye, so that the Ring would pass unnoticed. The name of Heir of Isildur, Imrahil deemed, would be the stronger bait. I knew it was true." Briefly he spoke of the Ring, its peril and its dangers, and of its bearer.
"Our hope almost was fulfilled," he ended his take. "The Ringbearer reached Mount Doom as we did battle."
"What happened?" Hengest asked. "If this hoblyta reached the fire of the Mountain, what happened that we lost?"
"His strength ran out."
Aragorn did not want to say more, but Hengest waited, and Thalion, and all his men. Haldor looked at him, and if it had been Halbarad, Aragorn knew he later would have to tell the tale in full. It could wait.
"I would not have made it half as far," was all he said. "And it is my guess, and his, that he would have been found sooner, had we hid behind the walls of Minas Tirith."
"I did not know." Hengest spoke quietly.
There was a silence.
"Ranger, did you? Did any of you know?"
Haldor realised Hengest talked to him. "No," he answered. "I did not know the plan in full. I had no need to, and therefore did not ask. Yet we had seen the Blade Reforged, and the heir of Elendil break the secret we had long guarded to keep him safe. We knew the stories of old, and the signs to look for. We knew what was said of Isildur's Bane.
"But we knew the danger, and so we did not even guess in our hearts. The Chieftain called, and we answered."
"And now?" Hengest asked.
Aragorn rose. He held out his hand rose Hengest with him. The Dúnedain all came to stand around them.
"Now, son of Eorl," Aragorn said, "is the time for courage without hope, and valour without renown.
"Til bith se the his treowe gehealdeth, … ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acythan, … nemthe he ær tha bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman?."
Hengest bowed. "Thæs ofereode, … thisses swa mæg?." He looked up. "My grief is answered, and my wrath brought to naught. Éomer king judged you right."
Notes on languages and names:
"Til bith se the his treowe gehealdeth (etc)": OE from The Seafarer:
Good is he who keeps his faith, And a warrior must never speak
his grief of his breast too quickly, unless he already knows the remedy -
a hero must act with courage
Thæs ofereode, … thisses swa mæg: OE from Deor: That has passed so shall this
Hengest, son of Folcred: I've tied this character to another story of mine: "The Horse and the Rider". It was written for a challenge on Teitho, and is at the moment only published there since I plan to do some rewriting of it. Knowledge of that story is not necessary for understanding this; it is only a piece of my own head-canon for Aragorn's Thorongil-years in Rohan.
A/N: My thanks to the writers of The Garden of Ithilien and my beta JAUL for help in getting this chapter ready.
The writing (and revising) are going a little slow for me at the moment, but I hope to have the next chapter ready in a shorter time than it took for this. I don't dare promise a date, though, but hope to get at least get back to my monthly schedule.
I hope the formatting and tense-change of the flashbacks work. First I wrote the dialogue without any marking at all, because I wanted a more dreamlike quality, but changed to use the em-dash to mark the beginning of the speech to make it a bit clearer. I know the format might be un-known to some, but I hope the parts were clear even so.
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.