12. The Power Left
From the hand of Faramir, the Steward of Gondor:
I hope one day you might read my words, or, better yet, that we may speak, and have no need for written words. But since I cannot be with you, I will imagine that these letters will reach you, and that the Enemy will not find them. Yet I do not think he will glean anything from my words that he does not know: what I think of his rule is not a secret to him, and my tidings all come to me from his agents.
The Dark Lord's Mouth began his assault on Rohan one week after the King and my uncle were brought to the Shadow. While I still do not fully know what plans he has for Gondor, it has become clear to me that they are not the same as for Rohan. Perhaps it is because you, beloved, and your brother, the king, escaped him. In Gondor, there was little bloodshed after my surrender, but from what I have heard, the Mouth deals far harsher with your people. And is met with far more determined resistance. Rumours whispered in the alleys of Minas Tirith claim that just the sight of one Rider will have a whole company of the Enemy's soldiers frozen in fear. Some even say that the Mouth himself fears nothing but the eyes of the King Elessar, and the hoofbeats of the Mark.
I have seen him avoid the eyes of Lord Aragorn. It gladdens my heart to think that you and King Éomer, your brother, cause him equal fear.
Gladdens me and worries me in equal measure, for I have seen what his hate will do, and the Mouth hates none as much as those whom he fears. Had I prayers to offer, I would give them for your safety. But the King is taken into the Shadow, and we have none left to bear our prayers.
Captain Nagid, who led Lord Aragorn and prince Imrahil to the Dark Tower, returned two months after he left but bore no tidings of them. None that have been shared with me. Though both were taken as hostages, to suffer no bodily hurt as long as the people of Gondor and Dol Amroth remain obedient to the Dark Lord's will, I dare not think of what torments they might endure; for the Enemy lies and deceives, and there are other torments than those of the body. And I know there will come a time when I must risk the King's health for the peoples'. Until then, I can but hope the Enemy will at least keep to the letter of his promise."
Aragorn turned to Thalion. "Are you answered?"
"Yes, my lord," Thalion answered. He shifted his eyes to Hengest and nodded towards the doorway. Hengest nodded back, before he bowed to Aragorn and withdrew. Thalion waited until he was out of hearing before he continued. "And yet not. We still have not fully touched upon our problem."
Aragorn had watched the exchange in silence, but now he answered Thalion's words. "Yes, we have."
"If the King will forgive me: we have not. One man…"
"We understand the lesson," Taddal interrupted. "We are not simple."
"No," Haldor agreed, "we are not. And neither is Thalion. You have other purpose, knight of Dol Amroth, than to preserve the Chieftain's safety."
Aragorn had not turned from Thalion. He did not speak while his men spoke, but watched Thalion and noted how his eyes flickered from one Ranger to the next, though Thalion gave no other sign to the Rangers' words. Aragorn spoke:
"What further problem do you see?"
Thalion's eyes snapped back to the king. "I do not know what Haldor has told…"
"I have eyes and ears, Thalion," Aragorn answered. "And I did not lead some sheltered life — locked away from danger or power struggles— before I revealed myself."
"Then what has the King seen?" Thalion did not back down. His voice was held in respectful tones, but Aragorn did not trust it to be other than an act.
"The king has seen that the men are divided, made so, no doubt, by the intent of the guards. Or, rather, the commander. Captain Gorgol delights in the breaking of others, but Commander Apam…" Aragorn shook his head. "The commander is a different danger. Apam believes himself righteous." But he said no more about the commander. "I have seen that the strong prey on the weak, and the weak must try to ally themselves with the strongest group, or any group that will have them. The Orcs, in particular, encourage the brutal, though the commander, I guess, will not let it endanger the work, or too many of the captives' lives.
"The bond between my Rangers is strong, making them strong in turn. The guards distrust their loyalty to each other, which is not founded on fear. You, Thalion, see me as more than your liege-lord. Or, perhaps, less: you see in me a chance of safety."
Thalion shifted, uneasy. "The Rangers keep to themselves," he began.
"And that has been their failing," Aragorn replied. "Do not think I have not seen it. But you have not my safety in mind. Not as fully as you pretend: You wish me safe, so that I can make you so." He paused. "How see my eyes so far?"
"Better than I feared," Thalion answered. "And in part better than I like. But I do not think of my own safety alone. We are divided, but we need not be so. The King can do this, but I fear the Ranger can not."
"I am both," Aragorn said. "And both Ranger and King is needed here, I deem, though I must confess: the Ranger is more used to mistrust.
"Gorgol sees a threat, Thalion, where you see a hope. You wish me safe so that I can gather all the captives under my rule?" Aragorn snorted. "Whatever rule that might be."
Thalion did not answer. He held his ground, but he did not meet Aragorn's eyes.
"I am a prisoner, as you, Thalion. Do you think the Orc would leave me, should I fulfil his fear?"
Silence met his words. Thalion stared past him, his face blank and his stance straight.
Aragorn held up his hand, but not fast enough to stop Haldor's outburst. The movement stretched sore ribs, and he winced. Thalion's eyes flickered to him and back. Aragorn sighed. His shoulders slumped, and he made to sit. Haldor was there, helping him settle on the ground.
"Speak, Thalion," Aragorn echoed Haldor's command. "But speak your mind to the point. Do not beat around the bush."
"My lord." Thalion did not hesitate. "You are already injured, and I ask again: by whose hand?"
"You have already guessed." Aragorn sounded tired. "Would you have me endanger those whose claim I have accepted? It will not help me win their hearts."
Thalion faltered at Aragorn's words. He stood a moment undecided. Haldor knelt by his Chieftain's side, and this time Aragorn did not bat his hands away. He let Haldor open his shirt, but did not let go of Thalion with his eyes.
An ugly bruise stretched from his hip up to the lower rib, but Haldor saw that Aragorn had spoken true before: little could be done to ease it. He closed the shirt without a word, his hands as soft as he could make them. Still Aragorn closed his eyes, though he made no sound.
"You should lie on the straw beside Angbor. It will be softer, if only a little."
Aragorn nodded, but when he opened his eyes, it was Thalion's he sought. Thalion knelt down before him.
"Winning their hearts will mean one danger less," he said.
"Yes, but several would take its place. And it will take more than a day to do so."
"Win those you can." Thalion took Aragorn's hand and held it with the palm turned up. "The Elfstone did not win our heart by the sword in his hand. He did it by bringing us back from the dead."
"You ask much."
"But nothing, I think, that you cannot do. However the guards may try to shift the balance, they cannot rule our hearts."
"You did not tell us about Lord Elrond."
They were all tired from the day's work, but Haldor was restless, and from the turning and tossing around him, few of the Rangers could yet sleep.
"You did not want to hear, Haldor." And there was still one whom Haldor did not name.
"Yes," Haldor protested. "No," he admitted.
Aragorn gave up finding a god position to sleep. He sat up and found the wall, leaned against it. Less pressure on the ribs. Beside him, Haldor moved as well, until they sat shoulder by shoulder. The troches that had been put out, but some light still leaked in from the cave beyond.
I should be used to darkness.
Aragorn sighed. "Haldor, have you made up your mind?"
Light fell on the back wall. As if by purpose or design, Aragorn sat so that his chest caught the light, but his face was in shadow. The burn had almost healed, leaving the ugly mark of the Eye clear. Aragorn had given up trying to hide it after he had been forced to work bare-chested on his second day.
"No," Haldor answered. "I am not one to ask where a man does not wish to speak. But, Aragorn, you are our Chieftain still: I need to know, so that I can counsel well. Should we change? Should we follow Thalion's advice? What is it that the Dark Lord want of you, that he will keep you alive and give you back to us thus?"
"I do not know," Aragorn answered. "Apart from being held as hostage against Faramir. I have been told that I will bow and serve him, but I have not been told what he wishes me to do."
"And if you had been told?"
"My answer would have been the same. But Sauron does not need me to rule Gondor: he has servants enough that would take Faramir's place with joy. All I know, is that he wishes to break me, but for what purpose? That is hidden to me."
Haldor had no answer, but he did not lie down again to sleep.
I should be used to darkness. But he is not, though Haldor's presence is soothing, and the sound of living men around him is as well. Durion, who had been cleaning up after their evening meal, put out the last torch. Only at the doorway into their cave did they keep lights burning, and the light did not reach into the back wall. In the dark, memories lived. Memories Aragorn did not wish to revive. Beside him, Haldor was a shadow, but his eyes gleamed with reflected torchlight.
He should not ask, but here, in the darkness, doubt grew in him and all his failings returned to him, as it had not when he spoke with Hengest. He had to know.
"Did you ever blame me, Haldor?" he asked.
"For what?" Haldor sounded like he did not understand why Aragorn would ask. "When did you ever choose wrong?"
Ah, the dark. "Once is enough," he answered. "I should have gone with them."
"I write this by the light of the moon, beloved, and my hand might miss and smudge the page. Forgive me. My guards reported the light from my room, and now I dare not use the light of candles or lamps. One scroll only was found, and it had barley been begun, yet I will not risk more to be found. Ithil is strong and full tonight; he will have to suffice.
Outside, the City is quiet but for the soldiers patrolling the streets. The night-wind is soft; just enough to gently ripple the curtains of my window. In the light of the moon, the fabric has turned to silver and glass, and I am reminded of my last patrol in fair Ithilien. The Window there rippled so with silver and pearls in the moonlight on the night the Halflings were our guests. Seeing it, I wonder: had I known then what I know now, would I have let Frodo choose that way? Would I have let his guide, this creature with murder in his past and treachery in his heart, go with them?
My lady, in the silence of the night, I cannot but wonder if I could have done differently."
I should be used to the dark by now. But he is not. Not this dark, thick with fear, deeper than even the Mines of Moria. He is on the floor, leaning against the wall. He tries not to think. Tries not to see what was burned into his mind.
Footsteps interrupt him. Will they come for him again so soon? He has no time to gain his feet before the door opens. Something – someone – stumbles inside, thrown by the guards. Half the height of a Man. He falls on Aragorn, who catches him as best he can.
— The Great Lord is merciful, Nagid, the Haradric captain, says. Learn this.
The door shuts, and darkness returns. Aragorn feels a hand, small as if belonging to a child, touch his face, and he forces himself not to flinch.
— Wh… Who? My precious… they took It. Have you seen It? He…
Elbereth! He holds the hobbit close.
— A… Aragorn?
At first, he finds no words to speak. He holds him. Frodo is silent too. He is shaking, but Aragorn cannot bring himself to ask. Not yet. It is Frodo who breaks the silence, and when he speaks, his words ring with chilling clarity.
— I am sorry, he says. He makes to speak again, but Aragorn interrupts.
— I should have gone with you.
He can feel Frodo shake his head.
— I don't think it would have changed much, Frodo says. Except, perhaps, getting us caught sooner.
Aragorn wants to deny it.
— And you never meant to come all the way with us, Frodo continues. You meant to go with Boromir to Minas Tirith from the start. I knew that. It was I that failed.
— At the Gate, Aragorn says, the Mouth showed us your mithril-shirt. I… I might have kept you free a little longer, long enough that you might have reached the Fire.
Frodo pushes himself away from Aragorn and sits up beside him. Their shoulders touch, but Aragorn does not try to draw Frodo closer. With halting words, Frodo explains.
— I had time: I reached the Fire. The shirt was lost when we entered the land, but Sam rescued me then. Sam… Sam helped me, all the way to the last stretch. I stood there. The Fire, it burned so hot. So very hot. I could not do it. I could not destroy It. So beautiful… so precious… Burning, already burning. So alone… ashes… dust… so dry, so hot. Burning, always burning. I could not… So I took It, and He saw me. The Eye. I should have destroyed It then, but I had lost my mind. I thought… No, I did not think, and…
— By the time I came to my senses, it was too late. He had come.
— Poor Gollum, he says. I thought I understood him before, but I was wrong. On His hand… to see It… never to have It again…. He stops, unable to go on.
Aragorn sits in silence, waiting. He wants to ask, wants to know what that creature did, but Frodo does not speak and Aragorn lifts one, shackled hand. He draws Frodo back into an embrace.
— And Sam? he asks. He can feel Frodo shaking, but he will not let him go. Not this time. He opens his mouth to speak, but hears Frodo's voice, and keeps silent.
— Brave Sam. Brave, right to the end. He kept Gollum away, there at the slope, when I could do little but crawl the last stretch. Frodo pauses. I think he killed him.
Frodo is not the only one shaking. Aragorn's voice is hoarse and rough.
— Gollum would have come back. Even though I ordered him not to, he would not have been able to stay away. It…, he falls silent again. Aragorn waits.
— Sam was very brave, Frodo repeats. He… even when He came…. Another silence stretches out between them.
— It is better. Like this: it's better.
The cell is dark and damp and cold. Aragorn cannot tell whether Frodo is crying or not, but tears fall down his own face.
— I miss him.
And Aragorn can hear the tears in Frodo's voice. This time he can hear them.
— I should not, Frodo continues. I should not wish he was with me now. Not here. But…
He clasps Frodo close. Holds him and waits until he calms.
— I should have gone with you, he says again.
— No, Frodo answers. Again. We found it, we reached the Fire, and I… I failed. You could not have changed it.
Aragorn shakes his head.
— I should have gone with you, he says. I should have come.
How long they are left together, Aragorn does not know. He only knows that they come too soon. Too soon for Frodo. Too soon for himself. They pluck the Ringbearer from his arms and carry him away. Back to Sauron. And Aragorn cannot stop them.
"I should have gone with them," Aragorn repeated. "After Gandalf fell in Moria I should not have abandoned the Ringbearer."
"Did not the hobbit say that you could not have changed the outcome?"
And that was Haldor: awkward silences or clumsy words. It cheered Aragorn better than he would have thought. But it did not make his words comforting. Or true in Aragorn's ears.
"What good would you have done had you been with them?" Haldor spoke with no sense of what his words wrought. "We would not have found you, had you gone with them. The siege of Minas Tirith would have been lost, and the Enemy would not have kept his eyes so long on us, had you not been with us."
"I should have been with them. If I had…"
"You would be dead!"
Aragorn had not noticed the low murmur until it stopped. Haldor did not seem to even notice that it had, that not only their cave was quiet; the cave beyond had fallen silent, too.. He went on speaking, despite the silence, and the other Rangers watching.
"You would have been dead, Chieftain. When they took you away, outside the Gates, we feared we would not even see your corpse. When I heard Taddal call your name, I feared, but above the fear, I felt joy: you had been returned to us alive. The stars shone again, here where no stars can be seen."
Aragorn said nothing. Haldor seldom spoke, not like this. Not when sober. And he seldom spoke with many people listening. Now he saw not the Rangers watching them, not the eyes beyond their cave. Aragorn saw them. A part of him wondered if he should wait until Haldor took notice. He caught Taddal's eye.
Taddal turned, and the Rangers with him, and the murmur rose again. Haldor did not notice.
"If you had gone with the Ringbearer… If you… We would have nothing left. No light. No pride. Nothing."
"You would probably not have been here." Aragorn broke his silence. "Had you not found me in Rohan, you would not have been at the Gate. You would have been free, and Halbarad might have lived."
"We still would have had no light."
"Our crops are failing.
Spring was dark with little growth. When the darkness and the clouds of Mordor covered us, we had neither sun nor rain and the seeds could not grow beyond their first, pale sprout. Now the rains have not stopped since Midsummer, turning the soil to deep mud and drowning what tender plant survived. The Haradrim soldiers marvelled at first, but now they curse the dampness, which seep into every crack and chills our very bones.
The westernmost fiefs, around Pinnath Gelin and on the plains between the rivers Lefnui and Morthond, have fared a little better, but their grain, I fear, will not be enough to feed the whole of Gondor. But the fishermen say that the schools are larger than in years, something Nagid has been quick to proclaim to be due to the generosity of the Dark Lord. Dol Amroth is, so far, the only part of Gondor to be wholly ruled by the Enemy's men.
Even so, I fear the fisherfolk will not be given much time to enjoy their good fortune. Beloved, today a tax on fish was handed me, one I have little hope of delaying for long. Even Orcs cannot march on an empty stomach."
"We should share what little we have left," Aragorn said the next morning.
"It will do no good and we have nothing to spare, Chieftain; you know as well as I." Haldor hoped the Chieftain would not press. "Every day, you grow thinner, and we can ill afford for you to lose your strength."
"You are thinner than I, Haldor," Aragorn answered. "As are all the others."
But the Chieftain said no more, and Haldor counted it a victory. He should have known better.
That night the Rangers ate their last food. Whether Faron had any left, they did not know, but he did not look happy the next day when the guards fetched them. The gruel was thinner than they ever remembered it to be.
Aragorn was returned to the cave with the rest of the Rangers at evening. It had happened before, but not often. Haldor counted it lucky, Aragorn did not. As soon as the door to their prison opened, Haldor knew his Chieftain was right.
The cave was silent and empty of life. Right inside the door lay a small heap of food.
"Why have they brought us back before the others?" Taddal wondered. "And with the food already here?"
"Do not question our luck," Badhor said. "We need risk no injury; it is a blessing."
"This is not for our benefit." Haldor drew his hands through his hair. The Chieftain was with them, but Haldor was captain still; the days where he could leave the worry to others, were long gone.
"Haldor is right," Aragorn said, "benefit is not the right word. Nor is blessing. Is anything else unusual?"
"There is less," Taddal answered. "Our food has been cut, though we have one more mouth."
"That," Aragorn said, "is for my benefit." He stood silent in thought. "If we take control, and divide it equally among all the men..."
"Faron would take from those who cannot defend themselves," Haldor interrupted. "We are not strong enough, Chieftain, even with you returned to us, to challenge Faron. We need more support than Thalion can provide. Faron fears us, for he has not truly tested our strength — neither of us has been willing to risk a fight we might lose — but should he decide it is in his interest to test our strength…"
"Our loss is certain?"
"Not certain," Haldor admitted, "but likely."
Aragorn nodded. "Very well. Then take only a minimum of what is needed. How long must it last?"
"About two weeks," Haldor answered. "But sometimes longer. It has been more than twenty days since the last load."
"Minimum shares for nine for two weeks, then," the Chieftain ordered. "It should leave more for the rest."
"We are ten, not nine, Chieftain."
"Nine, Haldor. Do not question me on this."
Aragorn's voice was stern, and his eyes flashed. Of the Rangers, only Halbarad might have challenged him when he was in this mood. Haldor bowed his head.
"Nine, then, Chieftain. We will make it stretch for ten."
Aragorn did not answer.
Faron was not happy to see that the food had already arrived, and the Rangers given first pick. They usually did have first pick, but through a never spoken agreement, to be silently negotiated anew each time. Not by the guards' interference. The guards had always given the advantage to Faron in the past, and he could see his power slipping through his grasp.
He sent his men to fetch Thalion: someone would have to suffer his displeasure, and bring words to the Rangers.
"There is less food." Faron did not ask. Thalion stood silently before him. "And those friends of yours had time alone with the rations."
"They do not confide in me," Thalion answered. "Nor have I access to their supplies. Haldor has never taken more than his share before."
"Ah, but Haldor no longer commands the Rangers, now does he? And the Elfstone seems taken with you. Does he not reward your flatterings?"
"The King," Thalion stressed the word, "shows me no special favour. And from what I have seen, he is less likely to order his men to take a larger share than even Belith was."
"The King." Faron spat. "He's just a ragged northman, like the rest of them, taking on airs. No. It is his fault that there is less food: he has taken it for himself and his men, hasn't he?"
"I would not know," Thalion answered. "But I do not believe it."
"Kings and lords do not hunger if they can help it," Faron answered. "Those in power never do."
You would know. Thalion did not voice his thought. Faron knew of his low opinion, but it would do no good to remind him.
"Haldor and I, we had an understanding," Faron spoke on, "but this king, him I do not trust. And it is clear that Haldor will not disobey him, now that his lord is here. Haldor is much too happy following."
"He is your king as well, Faron." Enough of Thalion's distain slipped into his voice to spark anger in Faron's.
"There are no kings, or lords, or loyalties, here, Thalion!" He did not shout. Not quite. "You're a fool to think so, and you always will be. Are you hoping this king of yours will take you in? Haldor won't let you in without a fight, and he will not let you near enough to his precious Chieftain for you to convince him otherwise."
"And still you wish for me to be your errand-boy." In the flickering torchlight, the rough stone wall, with its nocks and knobs, gave more expression than did Thalion's face.
Faron grinned. "It would be better for you if you obey me. You think this king will change anything? You think my boys will leave me for him? You think the power will shift? I have Captain Gorgol's favour, and I doubt the Orc will want to deal with the Elfstone. Unless to beat him. I'm surprised he has not blacked any more eyes of your king yet."
"Then what do you fear?"
"There is less food than it should be, and the Rangers were here before the rest of us. There is no reason we should have been given less, and so they must have taken more. Or they are the reason our rations have been cut: either way, I want you to let them know my patience grows thin."
"And if they will not speak with me? They can see us talking: if they do not wish you to know, they will not tell me."
"For your sake, they should. I might not want to test their resolve if I can avoid it: with you I have no such concerns. Those few friends you have gathered will not stand against my men. And if your standing is that low with the brigand as you say, he will not lend his aid."
"And you wonder why I will not join you."
Faron smiled. In the flickering light, his mouth was a dark hole and his eyes darker still. "I do not wonder at all," he said. "I take pleasure in making you run my errands all the same."
Thalion did not answer Faron's jibe. He was alone, on Faron's turf. "Was that all?" he asked. "If not, then excuse me: it seems I have an errand to run."
"That you have, O knight of Dol Amroth." The bow Faron gave was full of mockery. Thalion did not return it, but turned and left. Faron's men parted to let him pass.
"Follow him, but not so close that the Rangers see you."
Faron did not even care that Thalion was still within earshot.
"They'll see us before we leave this corner."
Neither did his men, but at least some of them could think.
"They have seen us already." Thalion did not turn to speak. He had already told Faron as much. "They might speak to me if you stay out of hearing-distance, though."
Thalion could feel Faron's eyes on him, and his anger, but he was outside Faron's corner now. Some safety could be had. Or he could fool himself to think so. He could hear footsteps behind him, but they did not run. Or come close enough to drag him back.
"Fanon must want to hear what the King will tell me," Thalion muttered to himself. "The question is, will he believe the truth?" And will I hear it? his thoughts added. But that thought was too dangerous to be muttered.
Haldor had sat a guard outside their cave again. He still had questions, and he guessed Aragorn did too, but for some reason the Chieftain waited, silent, despite Haldor's efforts, as if he knew something Haldor did not. As if he waited for others to join them.
He was of Luthien's blood, and Haldor guessed some foresight might have been with him even here: Thalion drew near again, and he came from Faron's corner. The guards let him in at Aragorn's gesture. It was as if he was the one the Chieftain had been waiting for, and Haldor wondered if it indeed was foresight, or if Aragorn had some other source of information.
"Sit," Aragorn ordered. "We have much to speak of, and I am guessing you have questions of your own as well. Not just Faron's."
"You saw him calling on me," Thalion said.
"I did not need to. Sauron has some plan for me; the commander acts on His order."
"You think highly of our import," Thalion said. "Why would the Enemy care for the running of a mine?"
"He does not," Aragorn answered. "But though he has tried to impress upon me of what little concern I am to him, his actions belie it. He marked me. He has given instructions to Apam about my …treatment… here. He might not care about the running of the mine as long as ore is dug, but what happens to me… Sauron means to break me, and bend me to his will."
"And how does Faron figure in his plans? Or I? Do you think we obey his orders?"
"I doubt he even knows your names. But he does not need to, or command your obedience. He only has to know Men and our weaknesses.
"Today the Dúnedain and I were brought back from work early, and food was waiting in the cell when we arrived. A smaller share, I have been told, than before, though one more mouth has been added. I need no foresight to guess Faron's reaction, and he has used you as a go-between before."
"And you have not taken more than your share?"
Haldor found the question rude: when had the Rangers ever taken more than their bare need, or even that? But the Chieftain did not seem to share his anger.
"No," Aragorn answered, and his voice was calm. "Less food was given. My guess is that the commander — and ultimately Sauron — ordered it so that suspicion would be put on me, and my Rangers, and if possible also breed resentment toward me. I ordered Haldor to take minimum shares for nine. If all the other men wish for me to divide the food among you, I will oversee it, but — for now — I must think of my men. I will order no man unwilling."
"You are ten," Thalion said. "I do not think Faron will believe you took less than your share."
"Because of me, there is less food," Aragorn answered. "I would have said 'too little', but I know it was not sufficient even before. Apam, and Sauron, watch my move, and Gorgol is but waiting for a chance to make my life harder. They will expect me to take the food for myself; they know but the weaknesses of Men. I will not play their game, but I cannot let my Rangers starve." He nodded towards Faron's corner. "You can tell Faron this: I will not let my men starve."
"And who are your men, Lord Elessar?"
"You need ask?"
Aragorn held Thalion's eyes. Thalion looked away first.
"No, my lord." He bowed and left. Haldor looked after him, and waited until he was out of hearing.
"Aragorn," he said. "You know Faron will not believe him."
The question was, perhaps, not unfounded. Haldor resented it the same.
"You are our Chieftain. The Dúnedain do not doubt their own."
"There might come a time when you will. A time when you should." The last was but a breath; only Haldor was close enough to hear the words. Aragorn was not looking at any of them. He followed Thalion with his eyes, but Haldor was not sure it was him the Chieftain saw.
"What price will he have to pay?"
"Thalion?" Haldor hesitated. "Can you not guess?"
"I do not know what standing Thalion has with Faron: though they resent each other, he lets Thalion run his errands. You say Thalion does not follow Faron."
"He does not."
"Yet you do not trust him."
"I do not, and neither should you, Chieftain." Haldor said no more. In the darkest corner, Aragorn caught movement; Belith sat there, rocking slowly. His lips would move, but no sound would escape them.
I am your enemy, now, Estel.
Not risk that hurt again — he could not blame Haldor.
"I will take care," he said, "but I do not read any betrayal in Thalion's face, nor too much fear. Those I have claimed, I will not abandon."
Haldor said nothing, but he moved as if he could not find a good spot to sit. The stone was hard, but Haldor should have been used to it. Aragorn laid his hand on Haldor's knee.
"Yours was the first claim, and I have never forgotten it."
Haldor stilled somewhat.
"You should eat," Aragorn continued. "It is late, and the days are long enough."
"I will bring your share."
"No," Aragorn answered. "I will not eat tonight. Nor tomorrow: you will share my morning meal among you."
Aragorn shook his head. Do not! But Haldor could not remain silent.
"Aragorn," he said, and the use of his name made Aragorn pause. "How many days will you wait?"
"All of them."
Haldor searched him, no longer his subject, and for a fleeting moment Aragorn saw another in his place.
"For how long?" Haldor asked.
"Until there is enough."
Haldor shook his head. "There is never enough."
Aragorn sighed. He leaned back against the wall and looked up to where the darkness hid the roof of the cave.
"Did you not hear what I told Thalion? I will not play Sauron's games."
"You are playing, though."
"Not the game he expects; he only understand greed. But this is power left to me: the commander will have to interfere."
Haldor did not answer at once. They sat in silence for a while.
"Are you sure?"
Aragorn had expected questions, but not this.
"Yes," he answered. "I know."
That was a question Aragorn did not wish to answer.
"You said, Chieftain, that you needed someone to ask. I know it should not be me, but there are no others, as so I ask: how do you know that the Enemy will not let you starve?"
"Starve, yes," Aragorn answered. "But not unto death."
Haldor waited for Aragorn to continue, but he did not.
"Aragorn, you but repeat what you have said, but give no answer."
Aragorn sighed. "I cannot give better, Haldor. Had Halbarad been here to ask me, I could have given no better. Can you not guess? But we have all known hunger before."
"Not like in this place." Even the skill of the Rangers could not find any eatable thing inside the caves of the mine. They had nothing but what the guards would give. Haldor could smell the evening meal cooking under Durion's hand. For all his efforts, it still tasted only a little better than their morning gruel. They were all too hungry to care at the end of the day. When had they last been able to eat their fill? And still… He looked at Aragorn. "Do you expect us to eat while you do not? You do not know the Dúnedain if you think we will."
Aragorn sighed again. "Will you disobey my orders, then? You never have before."
"You never asked us to see you starve while we eat."
"Then bring one portion, and tell the others we will share."
"And will you eat it?"
Aragorn did not answer, and Haldor knew he would not.
"I need you, at least, to obey me, Haldor. If you want me safe, this will help more than anything you can do to keep the other prisoners at bay."
Aragorn held his eyes, and for the first time since he had been returned, Haldor fully saw his Chieftain.
"As you wish, my lord."
"Do not wince," Haldor said. "You command, and I obey. Even with Halbarad, it was thus. Yet the others must be told; they will see your refusal to eat at the morning meal."
Aragorn nodded. "You are right, Haldor," he said. "Gather them. I risk you as well as myself with this plan: I will need the trust of the Dúnedain."
Haldor bowed and left to do as he had been bid.
"On the morrow, Nagid will leave to take up command in Dol Amroth. My cousin and her nephew remain hidden, whether they fled with the Black Ships or later, I do not know. My hope is that they might find their way to your brother's kingdom, for with him, and with you, beloved, I sense now rest the hope of the Free People. The pride of Minas Tirith is broken, unless new pride should come to us from underneath the Shadow.
One thing remains to me: the King is still unbroken."
The Window there rippled so with silver and pearls in the moonlight on the night the Halflings were our guests. – see TT, The Forbidden Pool.
A/N: My thanks, as always, to the wonderful people on The Garden of Ithilien for help, feedback and support. My beta JAUL sadly has problems with her internet so this version is not beta-read, but I will replace the chapter with the beta'ed one as soon as her connection comes back up. I have tried my best to weed out typos etc on my own. I will also thank Lindahoyland who spotted some missed mistakes in the last chapter: they will be fixed shortly.
(I also want to thank everyone who has commented. I'm very much behind on answering, but I have not forgotten you, and am immensly grateful for every comment.)
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.