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Roots: 12. Questions In the Dark
"Gollum... gol-lum!" Stifling a sigh, Gandalf the Grey glared at the moaning prisoner huddled in a corner. Filthy, nearly naked, with bones showing prominently through thin, taut skin, Sméagol was the very image of pitiful, down to the wide and staring eyes. And yet, no one would mistake him for a creature of good will, for there was that in his mutterings and look that would raise even an innocent hobbits hackles. Certainly, the miserable wretch had put the wind up Aragorns back, which took some doing. And although Gandalf, whether out of concern for others or for the sake of a wizards pride (which was not inconsiderable, admittedly), was not one to advertise that he was at a loss, he found himself reluctantly accepting that Sméagol was not quite so pathetic as he seemed. A coward, yes, with more twists than a mountain trail, but there was something elemental in that darkened mind that refused to unbend or break. Bound as that darkness is to the Ring itself, I ought not to be surprised, the wizard thought, which did not comfort him at all. For all things wrought by the One endure while it endures, and though he thwarts us still, I do not doubt my guess is correct, even without the final proof. Thus I doubt not that even should this seeming-frail body fail, still, Gollum shall leave his mark upon the world. It was a troubling thought, but as there was nothing that he could do to change that fact, Gandalf set it aside in favor of more pressing considerations. Such as how to break--
"Mithrandir?" A voice sounded from behind him--that of the captain of the guard, who alone had been permitted to approach Gollums cell, by the wizards orders. The captain stood and looked in through the little, barred window in the door, and keys rattled and chimed in the lock. After a moment, the door opened just a crack, and lamplight stole in through the narrow opening. Gollum shrieked, gurgling in his throat as he cowered and covered his eyes, and the wizard sighed.
"Yes, yes, a moment," he replied gruffly, gazing balefully at the prisoner as he rose. "We shall speak again soon, Sméagol." With that, he turned and strode regally away in a swirl of grey robes. The captain opened the door a bit wider to allow him to pass, then shut it again, firmly. Beyond the captain, where Gollum could not possibly see him, stood Aragorn. His arms folded across his chest, he raised a dark brow when he saw the wizards face. After a moment, he tipped his head to one side slightly, subtle suggestion that they should remove a bit from the cell, and Gandalf nodded in agreement. "Remain here, captain, and be certain that he knows that you watch him!" he ordered tersely.
"As you wish, Mithrandir," the Elf bowed gracefully and turned back towards the door, though he seemed rather reluctant to attend to this particular chore. Ranger and wizard retreated down the corridor a ways, until they reached the juncture that led back towards the upper levels. There, they paused, and Gandalf looked Aragorn up and down with a knowing and critical eye. Arathorns son seemed improved from the day before, although in truth, almost anything would have been an improvement on the badly shaken and distracted man he had been.
"I take it that you accepted Legolas offer after all," he said, by way of greeting.
"Although I am occasionally a fool, Gandalf, I prefer not to be one thrice in a week, thank you," the Ranger replied, with a certain glint in his eyes. "And a good morning to you as well," he added, after a slight beat. The wizard stared at him a moment, but his frown dissipated quickly. With a chuckle, Gandalf abandoned his severe mien, reaching out to squeeze the others arm, and he shook his grey head.
"The young are resilient, they say!" he replied, and the Ranger snorted softly, but declined to take up that familiar line of banter. "Good morrow indeed! How do you feel, Aragorn?"
"Tis too early in the day to say how recovered I am, but for awhile, at least, I can help, if you wish it. And," he added, heavily, "mayhap it would be best if I took your place for a time, for as Dorothil tells it, Aradhil grows worse. Thranduil has even been once to look in on him, or else to look in on Legolas. Dorothil was not certain which motivation was stronger."
"No one has been able to reach the warden?"
"No one, not even the prince. Were he a Man, I should say it were futile to try, even."
"Yes, I see your point. Nevertheless, if he has not fled the confines of Middle-earth yet, then there must be some reason for it; and that means that so long as his body lives, there is a chance that we can recall him," Gandalf sighed. Aragorn frowned at that, brow furrowing slightly.
"I do not know, Gandalf. Ordinarily, I would believe as you do, that Aradhil lingers because that is his will. Yet my heart says otherwise, and were he one of mine, I would end it for him, for there is assuredly naught that I can do further." At that, the wizard raised a snowy brow, stroking his beard as he considered this opinion.
"I trust," he said at length, "that you have not shared this with any other?"
"No, I have not."
"Good. Well, I had promised Thranduil a moment of my time in any case, so he may as well have it now. Are you certain, Aragorn, that you are well enough for this task?" the wizard asked, this time in utter seriousness, and there was concern in his dark eyes.
"I cannot last the day entire, but a few hours with the wretch ought not to overwhelm me. If they do, I shall leave him to the captain," the Ranger assured him.
"Very well then. I shall hold you to that as to an oath, for we must learn Gollum's tale, and if he is pushed too hard or in the wrong way--or damaged physically--then we lose our chance." Aragorn nodded, and watched as Gandalf went swiftly up the corridor, moving with a speed that few would expect from one so aged. Until one comes to know him somewhat, in which case one may expect anything. If only expectations were enough to cure us all of this malaise! With a sigh, and firmly quelling the disgust that rose within him at the thought of bearing Gollums presence, the Ranger turned and went back down into the dungeons.
Thranduil held up a hand to silence one of his counselors, for a knock had sounded upon the door to his dayroom. A moment later, one of his servants peered in and announced, "Sire, Mithrandir is come to see you, if you will."
"Let him in, then," the king responded, shooting his counselor an apologetic look. "I shall send for you later."
"Of course, my liege," the other Elf replied, bowing ere he turned to leave. Mithrandir stood aside to let the counselor pass, and then nodded to the servant, who shut the door behind wizard and king.
"Good morning, Mithrandir," the King of Mirkwood greeted his guest. "I trust that your inquiries have yielded some fruit?"
"Nay, not yet," the wizard answered, and Thranduil blinked, surprised. Mithrandir saw, and gave him a thin smile. "Never fear, Thranduil, Sméagol shall speak in time, and just in the nick of it, doubtless!"
"Doubtless, and as I know nothing of this creatures tale, I cannot fear him overmuch. Aged and malicious, he seems, and I like not the look of him, but so shrunken a creature surely has not much life left in it," the Elf replied, waving the wizard to a seat, and settling himself in his accustomed place, nearest the window.
"So it may seem, yet appearances deceive. Seventeen years have Aragorn and I hunted him, and only now have our efforts been rewarded. He is not ready to die yet, and shall not be for many years, I think. But," and here the wizard waved one gnarled hand to dismiss the matter, "that is neither here nor there, nor the reason I came to speak with you. Insofar as the matter of Gollum is concerned, I would ask a favor of you."
"And what is this favor?"
"Keep him here, when Aragorn and I leave your realm. Keep him well, and ask no questions, either of him or of me."
"No questions? Of a prisoner held under my authority and at my expense? You ask much, Herdîr Ithron," Thranduil said mildly, leaning back in his chair as he considered the wizard. Mithrandir only gazed back, awaiting a response, and so at length, the king replied, "If that is your request, then I shall grant it, out of respect for the wisdom of Mithrandir. However, should this Sméagol attempt to escape, or injure any of my people, I will deal with him according to my own judgment and the laws of my people."
"Very good, then. I cannot argue that," Mithrandir said, and then sighed as he steepled his fingers before him. "Strange though it may seem, I am not unhopeful that he may be cured. How, I know not, but my heart says that I must not condemn him out of hand, though I think there are many who might disagree. His is a difficult case to judge, and mayhap no one in Middle-earth has the right or the wisdom to judge it." A moment, the wizard paused, and his eyes grew distant, though his expression sharpened. Bearded lips tightened, and gnarled fingers intertwined with each other, as if the wizard sought to hold something close, but then the moment passed, and he shook his head. "In any case, that decided, let us speak of other things. The presence of one of the Nine remained a matter of conjecture for far too long among the Wise. For proving our fears, we must thank your son and his patrol."
"I cannot say that I approve of his... hasty... decisions, yet you speak truly: we have delayed too long in discovering what dwells in the tower," Thranduil replied, grimacing, as he added quietly, "And we have suffered for that blindness!"
"Not alone, King of Mirkwood. And now that we know that Khamûl keeps Dol Guldur, should aught change, send word to Imladris. Elrond shall know how to reach me, if anyone does. Things move in the wide world, Thranduil, where the Elves of Mirkwood cannot see them, and I think the pinch must come soon, for all of us."
"The world may change beyond my borders, yet we are not wholly cut off, nor are we without our own measures, Mithrandir," the king replied, lifting a brow. "What preparations we can make to meet the onslaught are already long wrought, yet shall be less effective than I would prefer, I fear. We lose too many as time passes." To which the wizard only grunted, and Thranduil did not doubt that he knew that well enough. All the elven realms were in decline, painful as it was to admit that, and the king could not ignore what lay starkly before his eyes. Not when my own son and daughters have the sea-look in their eyes! Not when it has driven my wife from me already! For a moment, it seemed the world grew very dark, and when Thranduil blinked his eyes into focus once again, Mithrandir was regarding him with a look of grave regret and pity. Dragging his mind from matters familial, the king asked, "What of Aradhil? Since we speak now of the Nine, what chance have we to draw him back?"
"I know not, I fear. You knew long ago that Aradhil was dangerous--to himself, at the least. If he has learned to love your son, he still has not forgotten Eregion, and he clings to Legolas as he would to his own child, resisting all forces or individuals who would entice him away from his protection."
"And yet, he is too experienced and too good a man to leave to idleness or private vengeance. I had hoped that he had improved, but!" Thranduil sighed, raising a hand, palm upward. "At least Legolas has the mettle to resist the easier path, though I could wish he had found another way around it, as it were."
"You know well what I mean, Mithrandir," the king replied somewhat testily. "Legolas is young, and I fear that he shall end his days in Arda knowing more of strangers than of his own people and their ways."
"Do not repeat Aradhils mistake, King of Mirkwood," Mithrandir cautioned, and wizard that he was, refused to flinch before Thranduils glare.
"If I were so foolish, my dungeons would have more than your Gollum in them. Do not ask me to love what must cause me and mine pain, Herdîr Ithron!" For a moment, the King of Mirkwood stared at Mithrandir, but the wizard said naught, only gazed at him with eyes that saw too easily through him. With an inward sigh, Thranduil asked, "What is it you wish from me, Mithrandir?"
"Your word that you shall not misuse your youngest son. Your people dwindle, you say; it is, then, of no use to wait a hundred years to restore Legolas to a place in the sun, as it were. The world changes, and you must change with it if you are to face the Enemy. Whatever his faults, Legolas is willing to learn that lesson, which cannot be said, I think, of the majority of your people."
Thranduil gave a soft grunt, grimacing slightly in wry irritation. "Legolas is young! He is still reckless and unseasoned, and were I to excuse him this, I would be remiss. Had he not argued for a captains treatment, he would never have held command in my realm again, no matter what his birth."
"But?" the wizard prompted.
"But," Thranduil replied, proffering a slight smile, "he did carry himself as a captain, therefore he may one day hold that rank. In the mean time, he can spare a year--the blink of an eye--as a messenger. I am not so stiff-necked as the Dwarves would have you believe, Mithrandir!" At that, the wizard chuckled.
"Then I am well content, for indeed, your reputation among them is... complicated. More so, perhaps, than is the reputation of the Dwarves among Elves. But," Mithrandir lifted a hand to forestall sharp words on Thranduils part, "again, that is not a matter for discussion, for the grievances between your two peoples run far back into the Elder Days. I have no interest in any of it, frankly, save only that war between Mirkwood and Erebor would be... unfortunate."
"Then fear not, for we have no desire for war with any but Mordor. Arrogant as the Dwarves may be, they are, as it were, beneath our notice," Thranduil replied with a thin, humorless smile. "And they also hate and oppose the Dark Lord. Let him break his teeth against their defenses, if he wishes; the Elves shall not deny him that chance!" The king paused a moment, then shifted topics once more. "But we spoke before of Aradhil. Is there nothing you can recommend, Herdîr Ithron? There must surely be a pathway to his soul, else he would not remain here."
"But whether we can find it in time is another matter. You have visited him, I understand?"
"Yes, I have." Thranduil replied, and said no more despite Mithrandirs expectant silence.
"In that case, you doubtless know as much of his condition as do I. He does not respond to me, nor to your son, who is closest to him, nor to any of your healers. He could linger a month thus, or perhaps a little longer, as he is an Elf," the wizard said at last. "Men are more easily healed, I fear. For I cannot save Aradhil from himself. A good day to you, King of Mirkwood." With that, Mithrandir rose, made him a bow, and then strode swiftly out the door. But Thranduil sat in silence for a time, pondering his words and thinking dark thoughts about the fates of those touched by the Enemy. None of us are untouched who remain--did I not say it? It was rare that an Elf felt the pull of years unnumbered upon him, yet he did in that instant. Firstborn we are, and first finished, while hurt and healing come more easily to the Younger Children. And this must be so, so far as it is given us to understand. Yet accept it though he must, Thranduil would never love the fate that drove his people west, though he himself must one day take the Straight Path. With a sigh, the king rose and called for his servant to take a message to others of his counselors. The glory of Mirkwood was in its decline, and would soon be lost entirely, but even at its end, it remained a large kingdom, and its sovereign had many tasks that could not wait on one mans life... nor even his death.
Aragorn bit the tip of his tongue against the temptation to snap at the creature huddled in the corner across from him. It was fascinating, really, what a range of noises Gollum could produce in an inspired moment of sniveling, but he was not in the mood to appreciate such virtuosity. Usually, a Ranger developed a good sense for the passing of time, and the impatient did not last in Eriador; nevertheless, Aragorn could not decide how long Gandalf had been gone. A good while, and if he wished to keep his temper, he could not spare attention to the minutes that dragged out endlessly, even if a part of his mind fairly begged for release from this seeming-endless contest. Gollum whined and moaned in his corner, every so often peeking out from beneath an arm or behind a hand to see whether Aragorn remained, or whether his behavior had wrought any effects on the Dúnadan. And each time he looked, he found the Ranger sitting on the stool, staring back at him, his expression unchanged. A moment he would pause, and then the wailings would grow more intense for a while ere they weakened somewhat, and another look would be snatched. And since nothing ever changed, the cycle continued, though Aragorn thought that the intervals between furtive glances was growing shorter. That might mean something, if only the Ranger could hold his peace another several hours.
Or it might mean nothing at all in the end, he thought, careful to keep his thoughts well hidden, for it would not do to show frustration. Indeed, he dared not show anything at all, not even so much as a change in his breathing, for he had noted on his journey that Gollum's hearing was quite sharp. Pay attention, Aragorn! he reprimanded himself, and then cut short the litany of self-reproach ere it could distract him. It would be so much easier to threaten and yell, to give vent to his disgust and his anger. But without Gandalf to balance his temper, he could not trust himself to such tactics. And they have not worked in any case, and shall not, unless we are willing to go much further than we have. And so he had taken the other path, the only one within his means, and that just barely today. He had sat through the shrieks and screams that had greeted his arrival in silence and without cringing, and he had waited through the loud groans and curses thrown in his direction. Curses had diminished to half-coherent gibbering, and when words had proved tiring, Gollum had turned to wordless moans and whimpering. How long the wretch could continue this was not something Aragorn wished to contemplate, as it made the time spent in Gollums presence more oppressive. Of one thing only was he certain: silence was beyond the miserable creature, and in some sense intolerable to him. Whether he says aught of use is another matter, but surely... surely if he is not wholly ruined, then something must slip out with time. If I can stand to wait that long!
"Gol-lum... gollum... cruellll they are, precioussssss!" the wretch whined, ending in a sibilant hiss. "Yesss... yess... gollum... poor Sméagol with nothings to eat.... We are starving! Elves with cold eyess and Man with hard handses... not nice, no, my preciouss... my pressscioussss.... Not nice... not nice at all... gollum, gol-lum!" Eerily luminescent eyes focused for a moment on him, and it took an effort of will not to grimace. Heavy lids closed over those eyes, extinguishing their light for an instant. Then Gollum buried his face in his hands with a gurgling cry that grated on Aragorns nerves. "They hates us, preciousss.... Ties us with nasty steel, they do, yes, poor Sméagol!" he continued after a moment. "They dont care that it hurtss uss, do they, precious? That it hurts uss... it huurrtsss usss, my preciousss! Hurtss...!" Shrill rose that voice, and Aragorn found himself clenching his teeth in spite of himself. "Ahh... it hurts us!" Gollum paused a moment, breathing harshly, panting almost, and trembling pathetically so that the chain round his ankle rattled against the stone floor.
And then something queer happened. All at once, Gollum stilled, and his breath hissed through his few teeth in a long, throaty exhalation. And when he spoke again, his voice was lower, softer, imbued with a surly malevolence. "They wants you, my prrrecious. They wants... they wants you and they think we shall tell! But we shant, shall we, precious? Oh no...we shant ever tell! Cruel Man and nasty, bright Elves, friends with the Yellow Eye.... They will never have you, precious! Never! Crawling orcs never found uss.... Oh, nasty orcs in the mountains feared us, didnt they, precious? And Men, too, they was frightened of us, yes, yes! Gol-lum... gollum. Friends will help uss, yess, precious... nice friendses.... He knows them, doesnt he, precious?" Suddenly, Gollum was looking at him again, and the light in his eyes was such to put a chill even in a Rangers bones. Squatting there, his long-fingered hands caressing the stones, seeming to take a perverse joy in their unyielding coldness, Gollum glared at him. "Yesss... he knows them! They will get him one day, yess preciouss. Sss... cruel he iss... will learn better, eh, my precious? Learn not to hurt my preciouss...heh.... Filthy tark!" Gollum spat, and lunged.
It was quite possible that Gollum had not intended to go far; it was almost certain that he had had no real intention to attack. Unfortunately, Aragorn had listened to that voice grow more and more malicious, and felt his own control slipping by degrees. The hate in Gollums voice, and his sudden movement touched instincts too deeply ingrained to be overridden in that instant. Gollum squealed in alarm as the Ranger rose abruptly, and--
"Aragorn!" Before he could do or say anything he would regret later, Gandalfs voice stopped him cold, like a slap to the face or ice water down his back. Thank Eru! A moment longer, Aragorn stared at the prisoner, then turned on his heel and stalked towards the door, which opened just as he reached it. Brushing by Gandalf and the guard captain, he headed down the corridor once more, til he felt certain Gollum would not hear. Swearing softly but with feeling, he leaned against the wall, heedless of the pressure against his shoulders, and was grateful, suddenly, that he had not gone into that cell armed.
"Thrice in a week after all!" he finally sighed, raising his eyes to Gandalfs.
"Indeed! I fear this is a step back, for now he knows we have limits." The wizards expression was stormy, but after a long moment, he, too, sighed and shook his head. "Well, it is done, and we shall have to work around that. In truth, I ought not to have left you in there so long, but you seemed to be doing well enough until the end."
"How long were you listening?" Aragorn demanded, frowning.
"Quite long enough. And mayhap, there was naught I could have done, for that change came suddenly." Gandalf pursed his lips, eyes narrowing with concentration as he thought. Finally, he said slowly, "I think he may be growing desperate. He has spent several days in that cell now. I do wish you could have held out awhile longer, my friend!" He sighed.
"I think I may be more hindrance than help in this, Gandalf," the Ranger admitted reluctantly.
"Hmph! Mayhap, but still, I may have uses for you. Stay!"
"If you wish," Aragorn replied, the skeptical note in his voice a telling sign of the measure of his disgust with himself. "At least we know now that Gollum has gone to Mordor, else he would not know to use tark of one who seems Gondorrim."
"You noticed that as well," Gandalf sighed.
"Having had such names flung at me since I was twenty, I should hope I would notice," Aragorn replied archly, eliciting a soft, rueful chuckle from the wizard. "Need we truly ask further, Gandalf? You said that you had gone to Minas Tirith to seek another way to tell the one from others. Have you found it?"
"I have, yet we still know not the heart of the matter: whether he was ever captured and questioned."
"Who else would his new friends be, if not his captors? And if he was captured, then it cannot have been by some roving band of orcs: no orc would have the wit to play with a captive thus, promising friendship with one hand. Someone of high rank must have spoken to him. And then deliberately released him, else he would never have left Mordor."
"True enough, but there are too many closed doors in his mind for me to rest content with assumptions and conjecture, even though reasonable. And there are other questions that I would ask, and which cannot be answered, save by him. Something about him strikes me as familiar, and I would know why. I must learn his history, Aragorn, if I am to decide...." What the wizard wished to decide, he did not say, and the Ranger did not ask, recognizing that tone of voice.
"I bow to your judgment, then," he said after a moments silence. "Shall we continue?"
"Yes... yes, we shall. Do as I say, and keep a firm grip on your temper this time, my friend!" Nodding grimly, Aragorn followed Gandalf back to Gollums cell, and the screams shortly echoed in the corridors once more.
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