3. Do Not All Men Share Blood?
Morning came at last. In the early hours before dawn, when the dew would chill a man to the bone if he had no cloak or blanket, a deeper chill passed high above the Black Gate. Those below felt it, like the shadow of a cloud upon the heart. North and west it flew, and the dawn was dark from it.
But dark though it was, morning still came, with the blaring of horns and the shouting of Orcs and Men; a great part of the army broke camp. They marched out between the Towers of the Teeth and turned north, across Dagorlad and east of the Dead Marshes. Towards Lorien, and Rivendell beyond the mountains.
Aragorn had not slept, but drifted in and out of an uneasy slumber. The trembling ground roused him. The feet of orcs and horses and great mûmakil shook the earth, and they passed by so close to him that he could feel the warmth of the animals, and the movement of the air around the army. The sound was deafening.
The prisoners on the other side of the road could see the gleam of the weapons and the glitter of gold and red on the Haradrim warriors. A cloud of dust rose up into the air, chocking them.
The Rangers sought to get a glimpse of their Chieftain through the dust and the throng of feet. They did not heed the jeers the orcs hurled at them, or the insult from the Easterlings. They strained against the chains that kept them bound, and only ducked to avoid the rotting filth thrown at them.
Hours passed before the last company disappeared beyond the Towers and the dust settled. The prisoners, chained to the ground and to each other, coughed and shook the dust from theirs heads, rubbed it from their eyes. Of the Rangers, Haldor was closest to the road. He brushed the filth away as best he could with chained hands.
"How is the Chieftain?" Belith asked him. The Ranger was close, but a clumsy bandage covered his head, obscuring his sight.
"I cannot say," Haldor answered. "He is covered in dust, like the rest of us, and his head is down, but other than that… I see no wounds, but that means little."
Aragorn stirred. He turned his head from side to side, slowly, as if he tried to see with his ears.
"Chieftain!" Haldor tried to make his call soft, and still be heard, but his voice was rough from dust and lack of water. At the sound Aragorn raised his head.
The words abandoned Haldor, as they had last night. They had never come easily to him, but now they fled, died on his lips and refused to let themselves be uttered. And so Haldor waited in silence while his chieftain cocked his head, birdlike. He saw dried blood on the side of his face. Saw mud and dust and filth staining him. Saw his chest rise and fall. Saw the tremors in his arms and legs from the strain of keeping upright. Saw…
"Haldor? What do you see?"
"He lives." Haldor found his voice and words. "He lives, and he is aware." And there was nothing more to say.
They came for him before midday.
Time was slow in the dark behind the blindfold, but his men tried to speak to him when no guards were around, and he held on to their voices. Haldor, the only one he could hear clearly, had counted five Rangers among the captives he could see. He did not mention any of his other companions. If Legolas, Gimli or Pippin were alive, and captured, they were too far for Aragorn to hear, or for them to see him. Aragorn hoped they had escaped with Éomer. He hoped Éomer had escaped. Haldor said nothing of him either.
It was before midday.
Hunger had begun to gnaw, but he had known worse. The thirst was more pressing, and the gag sucked all moisture from his mouth. He could feel dust and dried blood cake on his skin. It itched. There were stiff patches of dried blood on the blindfold and the gag, and they were rough and scratching. A nuisance more than pain, but one he could not escape.
The warning moved through the lines of prisoners. Silence followed, and the footsteps of the guards close after. They stopped in front of him.
The guards swore, and Aragorn grunted in pain and bit into the gag when they began to tear at his arms; the nailed-on wood proved hard to take apart. So the soldiers swore, and began to break the wood.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
His heart beating. An even rhythm, loud and fast, interrupted by sharp, sudden pain and the dull thud of feet against wood. Thump, thump, thump, the blood beat and he could not draw enough breath.
He heaved for breath, the air knocked from his breast and the thump, thump, thumping of his heart raced. No sound made it through the muffling cloth, but a many-voiced shout cut through his muddled mind: the men cried in protest.
The ground was firm underneath him. Solid. Supporting. Holding him up, catching him when he fell. Gravel and sand and dust filled his nose, scraped against his cheek, comforting and hard at the same time. An unmoving place in a world that span and span around him.
The guards pulled the last part free and dragged Aragorn away.
They dragged him back to the healer, who grumbled and sent them to clean their prisoner up.
"Did you drag him face down in the mud since you bring him in all filthy?" the healer complained. There was a silence. Aragorn could hear the guards clear their throats, but they did not speak.
"Hmpf! I thought so," the healer said. "Off with you, now, and bring him back clean and ready for me look at."
Their hands were angry and they muttered under their breath, but they did as told.
He was brought back dripping water. The healer harrumphed and grumbled his displeasure at getting the bedclothes wet. But his hands were soft, removing his blindfold and gag. Aragorn clenched his eyes against the light. His breath hitched, but soon he got it under control.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Gentle fingers on his face, deftly brushing over the skin, carefully feeling around the cuts, cleaning them, turning his face this way and that. The cleaning stung, but he expected that. The healer gave him water. He drank slowly, in small sips; the healer would not let him drink fast.
"Men of Gondor know not the price of water," he muttered. "And from the look of you our own soldiers have forgotten too. Sip slowly: I will have no more spilled on your account."
"Now," he said, taking the water away. "Any new injuries?"
"No." Aragorn's voice was rough. "No other wounds."
"Hmpf." The healer bent to listen to his breath. "Your breath is laboured; more than last night."
Aragorn did not answer; the Haradrim captain arrived. Hewas less than silent; loudly he demanded the healer explain himself.
"This prisoner," the healer said, "has been bound like this since last night."
"That was the orders."
"Since you keep bringing him to me, my guess is that the Lord, or his Mouth, has some interest in keeping him whole." The captain did not answer, but the healer took his silence as answer good enough. "Then you will have to disobey one order or another; his breathing is not as good as I would like, and I must see his chest to tell if there is anything to worry about. For that, you will need to unbind his hands, unless you have a knife that can cut through mail."
"There is no need." Aragorn knew at one point they would strip his clothes from him, but he would rather it was later. "I have no broken bones."
The captain slapped him. "You speak when spoken to," he hissed. Aragorn did not answer.
Breathe in, breathe out.
"He agrees with you," the healer commented. "You should be more grateful, captain." He sighed. "Very well, keep him bound, but you should bring chains. I will see that he is fed and treated, but I want to wrap those wrists before he leaves. The skin is broken, and untreated they may poison the blood. Go ask the Lord's Mouth, if you so wish."
The captain held the healer's eyes, but the healer did not back down. In the end, it was the captain that relented. "Do not untie him before I return," he said, and left.
"Well, well," the healer muttered. "We will have to do the best we can. One of you can go fetch some food," he told the guards. "The other can help me with him. Down on the bed, face up." He patted the bed, and Aragorn was pulled down.
It was much the same as the night before. The healer poked and prodded and found bruises with unerring fingers, but Aragorn kept a better hold of himself this time. His eyes grew more accustomed to the light and after a time he could look around. He caught sight of Imrahil lying in a bed close by.
The prince was pale and his eyes were closed. He did not move.
Hands turned him over, pulled at his clothes and the healer's hands continued their work, poking and prodding his back.
"Pull up his… yes, that is better."
Aragorn twisted his head to watch Imrahil, focus his thoughts on him. Imrahil was breathing evenly, as if in deep sleep, and Aragorn watched the rising and falling of his chest. A blanket covered him but it had slid down and Aragorn could see the white linen wrapped around his right shoulder. It was fresh and clean, with a thin red stripe already bleeding through.
"Seems you told the truth," the healer interrupted his thoughts. "You have a nasty bruise along the spine, probably bruised the bone around the ribcage, but nothing broken. Must have been some hard blows to bruise through the mail. Yes, you can pull him up now," he added to the guard.
"Go see why your companion is so long gone," he told the guard once Aragorn was sitting. "He will not be able to escape," he added when the guard protested.
The guard grunted in annoyance, and chained Aragorn to the bed before he left to be safe. The healer shooed him away, and stayed silent and watched Aragorn closely until the guard was gone. Aragorn looked past him, his eyes on Imrahil.
"You are one of his men?" the healer asked.
"No," Aragorn replied. "He pledged he was mine, and a friend." He turned to the healer. "Can you tell me of his wounds?"
"So that you can hope that he lives, or that he dies?"
Aragorn found no answer.
"I am but a lowly healer, or so captain Nagid keeps telling me," the healer remarked. "But I know the colours of Dol Amroth and no mere knight would receive the care I have been ordered to give that man. Or you."
Aragorn held his gaze, but he did not speak.
"You puzzle me, Northman. I would have guessed that one that commands a prince, would be more demanding."
Aragorn laughed at that, bitter and without joy.
"What demands could I make?" he asked. "I laid none on Imrahil, or on any man but those that were mine from the North, nor would I until I had in truth been crowned. He held my word for command none the less. And now? I could not enforce the smallest demand, however much I would wish." He coughed, as if his body would support his words.
"My hopes have failed, Master Healer, and my heart is too sore for tears."
The healer nodded. "But not for grief, I guess." He tipped Aragorn's head to the side and began to clean it. When he spoke again, it was in the same, dry voice as he used when speaking of wounds and illnesses.
The Chieftain did not even turn his head. Perhaps he had not heard. Haldor strained to see where the guards took Aragorn, but he could not see far. At least it was Men, not Orcs, who dragged him away.
"There is nothing you can do," the man next to him said. His clothes were muddied and torn and Haldor could not make out any device. "Nothing, except, perhaps, to pray they give him a swift death."
"I know," Haldor answered. "And yet I must try, or utterly despair."
"You have lived your life far from the Shadow," the man stated. "You do not know what waits. Now I wish I had turned back to Cair Andros; perhaps my lord would have been slain had I not been here, not wounded and taken alive."
"Your words are dark, and full of riddles," Haldor said. "Who is your lord? The Chieftain's wounds were not grave, that I could see."
"The lord Imrahil. He was struck down, but I was close and we shielded his body until the Elfstone drew the enemy away. His sons fell defending him, but we were overwhelmed, and his body taken. I heard them shout that he lived, and that he should be brought to the healers." He turned to look at Haldor. "You cannot imagine what terror awaits us."
"You are wrong," Haldor replied. "Evil also touches the lands beyond Gondor, and since I was old enough to wield weapons, I have fought against it. And the remnants of Arnor know the hatred of the Enemy, in some parts perhaps even better than does Gondor: with us was preserved the line of Elendil. Now the line will be lost."
"There will be nothing to preserve it for," the man said.
Haldor had no reply. All his words were hollow; ash in his mouth, dust on his tongue. He looked west, but all he saw was the battlefield, still littered with dead.
"Then have courage." He found the words at length. "Keep courage, when all else is lost."
"Even hope?" The man shook his head. His voice was bitter.
"Aye," Haldor said. "Courage to bear what must be borne. Even that which can't. Courage is left, and cannot be taken, though even hope be lost."
"You speak like one of the Rohirrim. Or like they would, had they the words to speak it."
"The Chieftain always said that they were wise." Haldor smiled, bleak and small but it was a smile. "My father used to add: 'In their own way.' He found it hard to see wisdom beyond the Dúnedain, unless it was among the Elves. And not always there, either."
The other man made a grimace, perhaps it was meant to be a smile. Then it faded. "You do not know," he said again.
"I do know!" Haldor shouted, heedless of the danger. If they had been closer, he would have shaken the man. "You fear for prince Imrahil? There is no Man the Enemy hates more than the heir of Isildur and Elendil. Why do you think your lord had the heralds announce the King Elessar's name? That name kept the Enemy's eye on us. Do not…" he choked on his words.
"Do not tell me what I know or do not about the horrors of the Dark Land." He swallowed and his hands shook.
The man did not answer, and they sat in silence until the guards returned.
"My father, a merchant, happened to be in Umbar when the Men of Gondor attacked."
Aragorn could not guess why he told this tale, or if is only was a habit of the healer to speak while tending his patients.
"They still speak with hate about the captain who led the fleet," the healer continued, "but my father once told that he could not have been the monster of the tales. He never saw the captain, but my father always said that you could know a leader by his men.
"During the attack, my father was caught by one of the soldiers. Unarmed, and unused to fighting, my father threw himself at the soldier's feet, and swore by the Great Lord that none of his sons, should he beget any, would ever lift a weapon, if only the soldier would show him mercy and let him live.
"I do not know if the soldier understood my father's words, for he never learned the northern tongue. He told us that he expected to be struck down, or else be made a slave, but the soldier left him, offering no reassurance, and no harm. My father returned home, to find his first-born son mere days old."
He paused and regarded Aragorn. Then he said: "My brother did not honour my father's pledge; he fell at the taking of Osgiliath. But if not for the mercy of the soldier, I would not have been born. And a thought has come to me, that I may repay the debt of my life to you, if you so wish."
"Then tell me of Imrahil's wounds," Aragorn said.
"Do you value my life so cheap?" the healer asked. "I would offer more; for life I would offer death. Both his and yours."
Aragorn was silent.
"With him it would be easy," the healer said. "And even painless. Too much of the herb that eases pain, and none to fight his fever. The captain will berate me, but I do not think I will suffer much punishment; few healers have my skill.
"Your will be harder. A poison in the water, or the food, I think. Painful, but still; you would no longer suffer the shame of defeat."
Aragorn closed his eyes. "You would suffer more than a reprimand," he said. "Sauron wants me for some purpose, or I would already be dead. And he wants me well, or I would not received care for a wound so small. Would you repay your life with your death?" A desperate hope fluttered and died in his voice.
The healer crushed it utterly.
"No," he said. "Perhaps if you had been that soldier, but I like living, and much as my father taught me to honour my debts, he also taught me to heed the Great Lord's will. The tale, then."
He continued to tend Aragorn while he told him of the Prince's wounds. Once, when Aragorn let his impatience for the tale creep into his voice, the healer chuckled: a warm, soft sound.
"I wondered when the demand would come. None of the great men of Gondor would bow to one with no pride." Aragorn mumbled in answer, but the healer took no notice of it. He continued listing Imrahil's wounds: a blow to the head, a cut to the shoulder: that last them most grievous hurt.
"I see," Aragorn said. "Will his arm heal to usefulness again?"
"If given time to heal," the healer answered. "It might. But likely not to full use."
Aragon said nothing, and the healer fell silent as well. He took a cup and lifted it to Aragorn's lips. Crystal water, cool and clean as water from a mountain-stream. Aragorn drank all the healer would give him. When the cup was lowered for the last time, the remaining thirst was gone with it.
The healer huffed. "The soldiers should be back soon with food; if the Lord in truth want you to live, then starving you would not serve his purpose. But have you any pressing need?"
Aragorn looked at him.
"Have you…" The healer gestured towards a bench where several pots were stacked.
Aragorn looked away.
"I will take care of it," the healer said.
The only mercy was that the guards did not return until he was finished.
When the guards returned, they were new, and many, Haradrim and Easterlings mixed. Haldor wondered why there were no orcs. They walked among the prisoners, choosing those that had but small wounds; there were none that had been taken unhurt.
Haldor was among the first they pointed out. He was released and hauled to his feet, made to stand beside the road. Soon a small group had been gathered, and it grew as the guards picked more and more men. Haldor could see that other groups were forming further down the line; more prisoners had been taken than he first had thought. He turned his head back towards the Black Gate. He could see more now that he was standing, but he caught no sign of his Chieftain.
"Hear!" one of the soldiers shouted. "You have marched against the Great Lord without just cause or provocation. You shall therefore serve Him that you may repay this wrong."
None spoke. They stood in mute rebellion, the people of many lands and places, from north and west and south.
"You will obey," the soldier continued. "And your first task begins today." Haldor saw the hand-drawn carts, and knew before they were told, what that task would be.
The field was littered with dead. Sorting through them; a task without end. The Easterlings and Haradrim fallen were taken to be buried after the custom of their people. The orcs were piled to burn, and the rest… the rest they were ordered to dump in the pools and marchlands around the slag-hills where they have made their stand. Few refused the task, and many grieved. The prisoners grew grim as the day grew old.
Haldor saw what they did to those that refused, and he remembered his Chieftain. How he had been brought, and how he had been taken away. And how they had silenced them. And he worked with no protest, sorting through the dead, separating friend from foe. But he closed their eyes the same, and wished them peace in death, as they had not had in life. All but the orcs – them he left, and thanked the Powers that he was not chosen to carry them away.
That day he found one of his fellow Rangers. Seron, who always spoke of his wife; Haldor had never been able to listen to him with patience, and avoided him when he could. Now Seron lay at the foot of the slag-hill, killed in that first, devastating wave when they knew all was lost.
"May the voices of the waters be with you," Haldor mumbled. "May they carry you beyond sorrow, and bring your loved ones to you." He closed the dead eyes and sighed. "Forgive me, that I did not listen to your speech more often." His eyes were dry, as if they had forgotten how to weep.
He laid him across his shoulder and lifted him up. Haldor looked around. He was close enough to the pools to manage the walk; he would not dump Seron in a cart with the rest. No guards stopped him to ask where he was going until he came to the edge of the field.
"Where are you going?" the guard asked. "The bodies go over there."
"I lost my way," Haldor answered. He kept his head down, did not look at the Easterling. "It will not happen again."
"It better not," the guard said. "Or you will not live to make it a third. Drop that body and show me your arm."
Haldor laid Seron down carefully. The Easterling grabbed his arm and and pulled him up. Impatient. He pushed up Haldor's sleeve and drew a dagger. "You get two warnings," he said. "No more." And the dagger sliced skin.
It was a shallow cut, for show, and not meant to cause harm. Haldor did not move or flinch. When the guard ordered him to pick up his burden once more, he did. He did not stop to bind his wound, and he did not speak. But he shook. The Easterling did not even reach his chin.
The dead were thrown into the mire. Several carts, each so large that two men were needed to draw them, transported the bodies to the edge of the Marches where a steep hill led down into the wetlands. There they were emptied, the bodies left to tumble down and be swallowed by the pools. A little to the side, a line of people formed. They carried the bodies that lay too close, or so the guards deemed, to waste the carts on them.
Haldor joined the line, and the Easterling left him. At the end, two Haradrim soldiers watched the men: one young, the other older. The prisoners worked in pairs, carrying one man between them, and the younger guard stared at Haldor when he came, carrying his burden alone. The guard opened his mouth to speak, but the older guard laid his hand on the younger's arm and stopped him. The two spoke, but Haldor did not know the tongue.
"Go on," the younger said, and Haldor walked past them, to the edge of the slope, over it and down.
Halfway down he heard the guard shout. Small rocks, shingle and sand moved under his feet, and came tumbling down from above. Haldor was surefooted, more so than the guards, and he reached the bottom of the slope, and the murky pool that lay there, long before they reached him.
He shifted Seron from his shoulders and down to the ground. He knelt there, beside the pool, and knew there was no time, and yet he was unable to let the body go. He heard the footsteps of the guards, closer with each breath, and still he knelt, and held on to the body.
The voice of the younger guard rang behind him. "What do you…?"
It was cut off, and a low mumble followed. Then the sound of retreating feet, and the shingle and sand moving.
"Do not test my patience too far, Northman."
It was the older man. He spoke the Common Tongue haltingly. Broken, but the meaning was clear. Haldor mumbled the words for the dead, and let Seron sink beneath the surface of the pool. He watched the waters close, and fall still.
"Be at peace, kinsman," he whispered.
The order was short, and the guards were quick to follow it; no soldier would laze about when their captain spoke in such anger. Fed and watered, his wounds cleaned, Aragorn was brought back to the Mouth.
Again he was forced to listen in silence. Again he was forced to meet the other's eyes. Again the Mouth could not hold his gaze long.
That was his only victory — he could glean nothing of use from the Mouth's gloating — but it was a victory of sort. So they bound his eyes and dragged him away.
They did not drag him far. Bare, wooden boards under him, and iron bars around him. A cage, by the feel of it, too small to stretch out or sit fully up, and they left him there still bound.
He could hear footsteps around him; could feel them through the floor of the cage. The boards were rough under him and they scraped against his cheeks whenever he turned his head to listen. He could not hear the other prisoners, only the soldiers moving around. But he had not been allowed to lie down since before the battle, not truly lie down to rest, and despite the nuisance of the hard wood and the irksomeness of all the small things he could not relieve, he fell asleep.
Slowly his body relaxed in his bonds. His breath grew even, and the noises stilled. The darkness behind his eyelids deepened and for a time, he could forget in dreamless sleep.
"Show me your arm."
Haldor stood and turned to face the guard. He held out his arm, where the cut was fresh but closing. Or should have. The guard took hold of it, but did not look at the arm. Instead he searched Haldor's face. The set of his jaw. The tears behind his eyes.
"What is 'kinsman'?"
"A relative," Haldor answered. "One that shares your blood."
"Do not all share blood, Northman?" the guard replied. "You mean family?"
"Family," the guard repeated. "I lost my brother in this war. And the son of my uncle's wife." He held on to Haldor's arm a moment longer. "Do not find more family on this field. It is bad luck." He let go of the arm. His fingers were smeared with blood. He rubbed them together, studying the freshness. He looked back up at Haldor.
"Do not share more blood, it may grow too thin."
Haldor nodded. "My thanks."
"Go now. Back to work."
Haldor climbed back up the slope, and continued his task.
It was near the slag-heaps that he found him, buried underneath a great troll. One single foot was all that he could see. One naked, furry foot.
"Ah Chieftain, you will grieve," Haldor muttered. He dug, and heaved, and spent his grief in the task of rolling the troll away. He picked the small body up and carried the Knight of Gondor from the field. Mud and mire clung to his feet, made him stumble, made each step a battle.
"Fear not, little one," he whispered. "Yours were the better fate." And it seemed to him as if the hobbit smiled.
Notes on names and language:
I have, to the best of my abilities, used Sindarin for the rangers or the people of Gondor, or found names that Tolkien used. For the Haradrim I have used old Hebrew as a base, but I try to avoid known biblical names, as I do not wish for associations to that.
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.