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Matter of Honor, A: 14. Bega's Son
~ Chapter 14 ~
"This is a good sword." The Karani chief cocked his head, squinting to sight along the blade he held extended in front of him. "I think I'll keep it."
Veraric's jaw dropped with indignation. "Why should you get the Northman's sword?" he asked. "I'm the one who delivered him to you! I'm the one who told you where to find the peddler. I'm the one who told you how to get rid of my brother. What do I get out of this deal?"
"I let you have his kit."
"It didn't even have any pipeweed in it!"
"And his boots," the squashed-nosed Karani pointed out.
Veraric scowled at his feet, newly shod in supple Rivendell cowhide. "Only because they were too big for you!"
"All right, then." Yielding to Veraric's insistent glower, Relnar pulled a smaller scabbard from his belt and flipped it to him with studied nonchalance. "I suppose you can have this as well, if you feel cheated."
"I have enough daggers," Veraric grumbled as he snatched the sheath from the air, though his face softened as he ran rough fingers over the smooth, finely tooled leather. "Pretty thing, though."
Halbarad's jaw clenched at the sight of such a noble weapon in the hands of a brigand like Veraric. The prize the Dunlending grudgingly accepted as a lesser reward was priceless and ancient beyond his comprehension. Twice had it been gifted to Halbarad – first by a son of Elrond, and then, with no less honor, by a very special hobbit.
Watching helplessly as it was tucked snugly into Veraric's belt, Halbarad let his aching head drop back down to the rocky ground.
In short order, the Karani finished their preparations for the ambush and took to the trail, riding out of camp in a chorus of raucous battle songs, leaving Halbarad and Melnag lying side by side, trussed like market geese and watched over by a couple of resentful stragglers. Halbarad twisted uselessly in his bonds for the hundredth time. By now his hands had been tied for so long behind his back that he could no longer feel them, and even the burning in his wrenched shoulders had subsided to the same cold ache that gripped his cracked skull and his bruised ribs.
Faced with a wretched and no doubt unacknowledged doom, he supposed his least thought should have been for the loss of his weapons, yet his thoughts kept wandering to the nakedness he felt at his hip. The sword was no family heirloom – Alagos carried that; handed down from his grandfather. Halbarad's weapon held no special heraldry or honor. It was simply the sword he had always carried; the one he had always expected his wife would receive after his death. For so long, Eirien had endured his long absences, the risks he took, his mad dreams of glory on the plains of Gondor, without even daring to expect to someday share peaceful old age with her husband. Her only comfort, and his, was knowing that someday, when he was gone, she would hold in her hands the last thing he had clutched in his. He could not bear imagining her left without even that cold comfort, though he knew that even against that unspoken possibility she had planned. She didn't think he noticed how a single unwashed shirt went missing from the laundry each time he packed for a campaign, only to reappear freshly washed a day or two after his return. He cringed to imagine her holding one of those sweat-stained garments to her cheek as she lay down to sleep at night, treasuring it long after the last of his scent had faded away. He wondered how long she would look for him each day over the rise of the hill, how long she would hang onto hope while he coughed out his last phlegmy breaths in the bowels of some Haradric mine.
With effort, he turned his thoughts to Aragorn. If Aragorn escaped, if he survived, then at least all was not lost, but he realized with mounting despair that once Aragorn gave up waiting for him at Tharbad, he would work his way south, searching for him. He would find the place where the Karani had taken him captive and track him until he walked right into the hands of Relnar and Veraric. Invincible as Aragorn seemed at times, he had no chance of defeating an entire band of armed Dunlendings in the shape he was in.
Burning with the realization that his failure would lead inevitably to Aragorn's capture, Halbarad heaved himself painfully over onto his side, casting an appraising eye on the guards. There had to be a way out.
They made an unimpressive pair of sluggards; lounging around the fire, grumbling about their lot. "It's not fair," one complained. "I'm at least as good a fighter as Krolnar, but I get left behind to guard the prisoners while he rides off to the raid."
"Krolnar's the chief's nephew," the other said with a shrug. "Of course Relnar's going to take him over you. What about me? I'm a better bowshot than Larneg. He got lucky with that orc. I saw it with my own eyes; he was so scared he released the arrow with his eyes shut."
"Lucky shot," the first guard agreed. "And now Krolnar will probably get his first blood today, and we'll have to endure a big feast in his honor when this is over." His pudgy fingers tensed on his sword hilt. "How am I supposed to get my first blood if I never even get the chance to draw my sword?"
"I know how you can bloody your sword," came a nasal voice at Halbarad's side. He rolled partway over and twisted his neck to gape incredulously at his fellow captive. The words had been the first out of Melnag since Squashed-Nose's men had finished beating him to a pulp and dumped his battered body on the ground next to Halbarad. Now, clearly, he had some scheme in mind.
"What's your plan, Melnag?" Halbarad whispered harshly.
"You figure it out," Melnag replied.
"If you tell me we can work together."
"Why should I?" Talking with his nose full of dried blood made Melnag sound like a man with a bad cold. "You're just getting sold to the Corsairs. I'm the one Veraric swore to strangle with his bare hands as soon as he gets back from killing my brother." Melnag raised his voice again. "Come on over here, lads; it's safe. I'm in no position to bite."
The youths looked at each other uncertainly. Finally the pudgy one got up and walked over to stand over his prisoners in a very unconvincing imitation of Squashed-Nose. "Say what you have to say, worm," he growled.
"If one of us should escape," Melnag said, "you'd have to chase him down, wouldn't you? And if he resisted recapture, you might be forced to kill him. Very unfortunate, but necessary, don't you agree?"
The one who fancied himself an archer ambled over and checked both prisoners' bonds. "The straps are good and tight," he announced proudly. "No chance you're escaping!"
"The chief would blame us if they slipped their bonds, anyway," the first concluded unhappily.
"Why should Relnar blame you?" Melnag asked. "It wasn't you who tied them, was it? What if this foreigner -" he indicated Halbarad with a jerk of his head – "got loose because someone did a sloppy job tying him up? You'll get your warriors' blooding and be praised as heroes for preventing his escape. And if he resists and you have to kill him, well -" he shrugged with feigned regret. "Things happen."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Halbarad interjected. "Your chief wants me alive."
"That's right," the first guard said. "He's worth a lot to somebody, the chief says. Now, you, Ruliri worm, are worth nothing to anyone."
"And does your chief plan to share the spoils with you, when he sells the Northman to the Corsairs?" Melnag prodded. "How will he reward you for missing out on the battle, by giving you his boots to clean afterward? You were left behind to watch prisoners like a woman tending children. Is that how you want to be seen? This is your chance to prove them all wrong and show them your true worth."
The first guard looked unconvinced. "I'm not sure this is a good idea. We could get in trouble."
The archer's face, on the other hand, had taken on the expression of a cat keenly eyeing a very unfortunate bird. "It beats sitting around here waiting for Krolnar to come back with warrior's blood smeared across his face, along with a grin as wide as the Greyflood. Unless you're too scared of getting in trouble."
The first guard squared his shoulders and yanked his dagger from its sheath. "Who's scared? Should we give him a little head start, just for sport?"
"Why not?" The other guard leaned over his bow to string it. "I'll show the chief what kind of archer I am!"
"Just don't kill him too quick," the first one warned, kneeling beside Halbarad's bare feet. "Leave something for me to do. Are you ready? I'll cut the ties on his feet."
In Halbarad's estimation, Melnag's scheme was flawed on a number of counts, not the least of which was its failure to get him untied as well. Likely, he hoped the guards would be distracted long enough chasing Halbarad to buy him enough time to make his own escape. But whatever Melnag's no doubt self-interested motive, Halbarad reckoned that any plan involving his feet being untied was better than no plan at all. With silent thanks to the weaselly Melnag, he held perfectly still as the first guard sliced through the leather thongs binding his ankles. The instant they were cut, before the rush of blood to his deprived extremities could overwhelm his mind with pain, he drew his knees toward his chest and thrust out both feet. His heels impacted the guard's chin, snapping his head backward. Without waiting to see if he would stay down, Halbarad struggled to his feet and tackled the second guard like a charging bull, using his skull as a battering ram. He didn't waste time trying to pick up a fallen weapon. His hands would not have been able to grasp one.
"Wait!" Melnag cried after him as he staggered into the trees. "What about me?"
The beatings and dehydration had taken too much out of him. Halbarad felt his strength rapidly faltering as he ran through the forest with clumsy strides, his breath ragged and gasping. Pain pulsed through his hands, forced past the constricting restraints with every beat of his pounding heart. His bare feet, too, screamed as they slapped the ground, still clumsy but now fully aware of each rock and twig. Branches whipped against his chest and stung his face. Several arrows flew past, not even close – the Karani chief was correct in his estimation of the guard's marksmanship, he noted with a faint glimmer of amusement. He heard hoofbeats approaching fast from behind, then a man's running footsteps, and then a weight thudded hard against his back, knocking him down. The impact of the ground drove his breath away, and he fought back from blackness to find a pudgy arm wrapped around his chest and the chill bite of steel against his throat. He arched his back, but his backwards head butt landed against the disappointing solidity of collarbone. He thrust his torso violently to and fro, trying in vain to break the hold. It was no use. His head was yanked violently back by the hair, until he could smell his captor's breath and see the leer on his round face. "Your friend was right," the guard said. "That was fun."
"He's not my friend," muttered Halbarad.
"My turn," came the voice of the second guard, the one who fancied himself an archer.
"You had your chance," the pudgy one argued, not moving his dagger from Halbarad's throat. "You missed him three times."
"There were trees in the way," the archer protested. "I couldn't get a clear shot. Let him go again and I'll shoot him as he runs toward the meadow."
"Oh, all right," the pudgy one said. He gave Halbarad a shove that sent him face-first into the dirt. "Go on, get up," he ordered.
Aside from the fact that Halbarad saw no point in playing the fox for his captors' amusement, he did not think he would make it half a furlong this time. Even the miserable archer would have no trouble hitting him. "Go practice archery on someone else," he croaked through cracked lips. "I'm done."
"Get up!" the pudgy one repeated, and once more Halbarad felt the bite of steel against his skin. This time it was the point of the blade, poised between the vertebrae on the back of his neck. "Get up, or I'll end it now."
At least it would be quick, Halbarad reckoned. "I'm not running," he managed to wheeze. "Go ahead and do it if you're going to do it." With a silent prayer for all that he still held dear, he laid his pounding head down on the ground and waited for oblivion.
To his surprise, the next words he heard were neither the grating bark of Dunlendish nor the sweet soothing tones of Elbereth.
"Drop your weapons!" Húrin shouted. "You are surrounded!"
"Oh, no," Halbarad muttered, fighting the tug of unconsciousness. "Not again."
When Dugaric's men began stripping Tulric naked and tying him spread-eagled on the ground, Aragorn led Daisy to a nearby patch of grass and released her to graze. Spotting a wide oak within earshot of the interrogation, he sat down with his back against it, stretching out his sore leg and taking a swallow of Miruvor to bolster his flagging strength. He could not afford to doze off. He had seen enough torture dispensed in his lifetime to be uninterested in Dugaric's particular brand of it, but he needed to hear what the prisoner had to say under interrogation; whether indeed the Karani had captured Halbarad or if that was just part of the ruse. As he waited, he took what rest he could, letting the warm sunlight soothe his closed eyelids and easing his weary body against the sturdy support of the tree. There was a time when he would have flinched at the screams of the prisoner, when indeed he might have tried to intervene. Such impulses he had left behind in the far-off dust of Gondor and Harad, along with other youthful qualities such as irrepressible cheeriness and the innocent belief that a happenstance of birth made the world his for the taking. The man who trudged warily back to Imladris twenty-eight years ago was a far different man than the scrawny, newly minted Heir of Isildur who had left it; just as he had left Lórien a different man than when he arrived.
He had been even wearier, then, he recalled; though not so much in body as in spirit. The long years abroad had imprinted on him too much of Arda's hardness. He had seen too much, learned too much, even, if he admitted it, done too much. The eager youngster entranced by his Tinúviel was gone, leaving in his place a grim, hard man who did not know what he hoped to find in Lórien, besides rest; could not say what impulse drove him there, other than a desperate, urgent need for renewal. He had not even been thinking of Arwen. He had not dared to. When unsuspecting he fell into Galadriel's gossamer net and realized belatedly just what she was up to, it was absurd fear rather than joy which first overtook him – fear that just as he had once been far too young for Arwen, he had somehow, in the space of just a few decades, become far too old. Upon his shoulders now, and written upon in his sun-lined face, was not the agelessness of Elves, but the weary weight of years as mortals bear them. If the guileless boy had little to offer Arwen, maybe the world-weary man had even less. But then she had smiled at him, a smile that made him believe she had been saving it all these thousands of years, just for him. She lifted the weight from his shoulders, at least for a bit, and restored in him a hope to sustain him through all the bleak years ahead. Only later did he realize that in his whole life, only that single season in Lórien would ever seem perfect and whole. Only in Lórien, bathed in the tranquil yellow light of Cerin Amroth and adorned with showers of falling niphredil blossoms, had he been able to pretend, for one blissful moment, that the world was made for the two of them. Only there had they been allowed, for one swift moment, to love without guilt, without cost, without pain, without soul-splitting sacrifice. It had been a dream, and he had wished never to wake from it.
"They have your man." He opened his eyes to find Dugaric standing over him. "They're planning an ambush."
"I heard," Aragorn said. He looked at Tulric's unmoving body. He could not tell if it was dead or alive. "What do you propose?"
"I know the place Tulric described," said Dugaric. "It's the ambush point I would have chosen myself; a natural chokepoint halfway to the place he was to tell us to meet the Karani – the valley narrows there, with low bluffs on each side. But there is another valley running parallel to it. If we move up that valley, we can come over the ridge right on top of their position. Are you ready to fight?"
Aragorn had never felt less ready to fight in his life. At the moment, it seemed as if simply standing up was beyond his strength. But for Halbarad, he would have to. He accepted Dugaric's outthrust hand and allowed the Dunlending pull him to his feet. "I'm ready," he said, steadying himself with a hand on Dugaric's shoulder until the dizziness passed. "Let's go."
"I don't see Halbarad," Aragorn said. He was lying on his belly atop a low ridge studded with oak trees, looking down at the approaching raiding party; a sloppy column of riders rounding a bend in the trail. In the lead rode Dugaric's brother, alongside a heavy-set man whom Dugaric identified as Relnar, the Karani chief. Behind followed at least twenty more fighters. Aragorn glanced around at Dugaric's dozen men. They would be heavily outnumbered, which meant any chance of success lay in tactical superiority; a dubious prospect by all appearances.
"Melnag is missing as well," Dugaric said. "The prisoners must have been left behind in camp. The attack will be simpler with no hostages to worry about, but we'll have to take one of the Karani alive, to find out where they're being held."
"I concur." Although Aragorn would have no difficulty following the Karani's tracks back to wherever they had left Halbarad, he had his own reasons for taking a prisoner alive. He very much wanted to learn the name of the party who was so keenly interested in acquiring Dúnedain prisoners. According to Tulric, only the Karani chief knew his identity.
Below, the column of riders had halted and assembled into a loose ring of horsemen clustered around the chief. Plainly oblivious to the threat from above, he ordered the battlefield, gesturing in turn at this or that promontory. It was easy to guess his plan – place his archers on the high ground, the mounted troops on either side of the trail. Aragorn glanced at Dugaric as the chief finished and the warriors began to drift away. "Dugaric!" he hissed. "Now, before they disperse and take to the high ground!"
Dugaric was already on his feet, bellowing an order to attack. An instant later, a volley of arrows rained downward onto the raiders.
Shouting a war cry, Dugaric's fighters poured down the hill as if chasing them. Hampered by his knee, Aragorn descended haltingly, using his scabbard for a support. He reached the valley floor to find the opposing sides already fully engaged. Taking a moment to catch his breath and take stock of the battle, he saw a few arrow-riddled bodies on the ground, though most of Dugaric's bowmen seemed to have missed their marks. The battle zone was constricted by the bluffs rising steeply on both sides of the narrow path. Men were fighting tight against one another as if fighting in a cave. Dressed similarly to their cousins and bearing no distinguishing clan marks, the Ruliri would appear nearly indistinguishable to his eyes from the Karani; nor did he care to bet his life on the Ruliri recognizing him as a friend in the grip of battle frenzy. He scanned the clashing warriors until he saw his objective – the Karani chief. Drawing his sword, Aragorn began pushing through the throng of hacking fighters, parrying blows without returning them, shoving aside obstructions in his path with the pommel of his sword. The air was already thick with churned-up dust, making it hard to see, but he could gauge the chief's position by the strength of resistance to his advance.
Aragorn had learned long ago that all battles, no matter how well-ordered, quickly fall into chaos once the first blood is spilled, but he was reminded now of an old captain of Gondor, who once told him that if he had to choose his battles, he should choose those over a piece of land. Without a piece of land to capture or defend, the officer said, the only objective of a battle is slaughter, and men will not stop until they have enough of it. Aragorn could see slaughter all around him now - well over a dozen men lay on the ground, though without being sure whether they were Ruliri or Karani, he had no idea which side was winning. He could see Dugaric still fighting, off to his left, his eyes fixed not on his Karani counterpart but his own traitorous brother.
Aragorn smashed aside an axe aimed at his midsection, staggering backwards from the force of the impact until he collided with the back of another combatant. Spinning, he raised his sword and poised it to strike, holding his killing stroke when in the last instant he recognized the man as one of Dugaric's. As he fought to recover his balance, another hand grabbed hold of his hair and yanked him backwards again. He dropped the sword and drew his dagger, stabbing viciously upwards into the soft flesh of his opponent's midsection until the grip on his hair fell away. He staggered forward, finding himself at last facing the bent-nosed Karani chief. There had been no time to retrieve his sword. As he parried the Karani's sword swipe with his dagger, he recognized with sick horror that the blade wielded against him was Halbarad's and pressed the attack with new fury, moving inside of arm's reach to neutralize the advantage of Relnar's longer weapon.
They ended up on the ground, wrestling for control of the dagger, and Aragorn was losing. He bucked and twisted, struggling to evade the blade moving slowly but inexorably toward his throat. With no gripping strength remaining in his right hand anyway, he released his hold on the knife with that hand and thrust his fingers straight into Relnar's eye. With a yelp of agony, the Karani clapped a hand to his face, but his defensive recoil had jerked the dagger upward with the other, out of Aragorn's reach. "Bastard," he snarled, raising the dagger high above Aragorn's chest, blade downward-pointing, poising for a killing stroke that Aragorn had no hope of defending against.
The next words they heard surprised them both.
"Drop your weapons! You are surrounded!"
Before Aragorn could begin to register what Halbarad's young son was doing here, an arrow whizzed past his head and buried itself in Relnar's throat.
"The Dunlending received a bad beating," Alagos said with a nod toward the glaring Melnag, "although you'd think by his attitude that we were the ones who dispensed it. As for Father," he turned toward Halbarad, "he's fairly well bruised around the middle, and he complained of blurry vision and a headache. His wrists and feet are torn up pretty badly, and I don't think they gave him anything to drink. He gulped down an entire flagon of water when we found him. He was complaining of pain in his hands so we gave him some poppy extract."
Aragorn knelt beside Halbarad and gently lifted his shirt. The skin along his ribs was bruised and scraped, but gentle probing brought forth no guarding or evidence of internal bleeding. The wrists were rubbed raw, the hands swollen and mottled. Replacing the shirt, Aragorn pulled the blanket back over his lieutenant's shoulders and gently inspected the gashed scalp. "You are going to be fine," he bent close to say, "as long as you manage to stay out of trouble until we get you home."
"Make sure you get my boots back," Halbarad murmured.
Alagos chuckled. "Maybe we should leave you barefoot for a while, Father, lest you're tempted to wander off and fall into enemy hands again."
Halbarad cracked open one blackened eye. "Whatever you say, Captain."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "Your father has never been so exceptionally obedient to my commands, Alagos. Will you share your secret?"
"Threatening to tell Mother that he trades her special stew for Meneliel's as soon as he's out of sight of the village usually works."
"I do not," mumbled Halbarad.
"What about you, Captain?" Alagos turned a concerned pair of grey eyes on Aragorn. "If you don't mind my saying so, you don't appear very well yourself."
"I am well enough," he answered, forcing himself to his feet and moving woodenly to where Húrin, Yenne, Haerost, and Alagos's men stood a few feet away. "Well done, men. You have my thanks." He clapped Húrin on the shoulder. "I must hear how you managed to summon reinforcements in the nick of time."
Húrin smiled bashfully. "Actually, they found us. Yenne and I got to Tharbad and waited for you and Father. You didn't come, but Alagos and his men did. Haerost had made it to Sarn Ford and brought them back. Together we worked our way south, looking for some sign of you or Father. Finally we came upon the place where Father was taken captive, then tracked him east along the edge of the swamplands until we found him fighting with the Dunlendings. He said something about them using him for target practice." At this, Húrin shot a glance at his father as if not certain he was allowed to be amused. "He told us about the ambush they planned. Without knowing whether you had escaped or not, Alagos reckoned we had better make our way here as fast as we could."
"It was good that you did." Aragorn took stock of the bloody ground. Nearly half the men on each side were dead, many more wounded, and the few remaining Karani had leapt onto horses and fled when the Dúnedain reinforcements arrived. In a thicket near the wood line, Dugaric stood alone, staring down at the body of his brother. Aragorn approached him unsure of what to say. He settled for simplicity. "I am sorry."
"Do you have a brother, Thorongil?"
In spite of himself, he could not suppress a bitter chuckle. "I don't know," he wanted to say, settling finally for "I was my mother's only son."
Dugaric shook his head. "I was taught my whole life to trust my own kin and distrust a stranger. I learned that it is not whose breast you sucked that makes you a brother, but whose shoulder you stand beside. Maybe it is time to change some of our ways." He bent down and pulled Halbarad's boots from Veraric's feet, unfastened his dagger from the sword belt. "Here. I can never repay you, but I will give you whatever you ask."
Aragorn glanced over his shoulder to where Yenne stood looking out at the field of carnage with eyes that had already seen too much of it. "There is just one thing I would ask of you."
"How long have they been in there?"
Aragorn's head jerked up. Blinking sheepishly out of a doze, he saw that Halbarad was awake, propped gingerly on one elbow and scowling at the denigha's cottage. With a glance at the westering sun, Aragorn shifted to straighten his back against the tree he leaned against. "A few hours."
"What could be taking so long?" The denigha's house was nothing but a shack in the woods, built of leaning sticks and thatched with moldy straw from which smoke filtered into the overcast sky. A few chickens pecked listlessly in the dirt in front of the door. "What are we going to do if the denigha says the girl isn't pure?"
The only thing worse than making life and death decisions, Aragorn considered, was standing back and letting other people make them. Yet that was precisely what he had promised to do. "I gave Dugaric my word I would accept the denigha's decision," he said quietly, wondering as he watched the Dunlending from across the dooryard if this was a promise he would come to regret.
Halbarad lay back down and rested his battered head on an arm, keeping his gaze fixed darkly on Dugaric. "Aragorn, if you are telling me to stand by and watch them kill an innocent girl, I do not know if I can do it."
Aragorn let a hand fall to rest on Halbarad's shoulder. "I do not think it will come to that."
"Why not? Dugaric was eager enough to kill her before."
"That was before."
"Before today." Aragorn nodded toward Dugaric, standing beside his son at the edge of the denigha's tiny clearing. Only the four of them remained. Alagos had led the Rangers east in pursuit of the Karani, and Dugaric had had Melnag hauled off forcibly when he protested Dugaric's decision to allow the denigha to examine Yenne. To Aragorn, Dugaric's posture seemed apprehensive, but far from murderous. And it was telling, he thought, that the chief had taken the precaution of removing Melnag. "Do you think he looks like a man bent on shedding innocent blood?"
"I wouldn't want to bet my life against it," Halbarad said. "What happened to his famous honor?"
"I think he may be coming to understand that honor is a more complicated matter than he had supposed," Aragorn said, "and that a leader can shape customs for the benefit of his people instead of following them blindly." He looked down at Halbarad with a weary hint of a smile. "In any case, I do not believe either of us has one more fight in us today. Have faith, Halbarad."
"In Dugaric, or in the denigha?" Halbarad asked. "She must be over ninety – ancient, for a Dunlending. I wouldn't trust her eyes to tell whether the moon is full or half."
"I have a feeling that old woman sees exactly what she needs to." Aragorn sighed and let his head fall back against the solid bulk of the tree. His eyes drifted closed of their own accord, but Halbarad's skeptical huff of breath carried to his ears well enough. He chuckled. "Have faith that goodness will prevail over evil, then."
Halbarad laughed openly. "Now you really are delirious."
Aragorn had no doubt that for himself, goodness would not have long survived without abiding faith in its ultimate supremacy over evil. He realized he had never actually thought to ask if Halbarad felt the same way. When Aragorn chanced to return home, talk was always of births and deaths, droughts and orcs and the quality of Butterbur's ale. Only on rare, lonely nights in the wild, around a sputtering fire with a sky full of stars overhead, might a Ranger share his most deeply-held hopes and doubts. Aragorn could not recall if this one ever had. "Do you not believe, Halbarad, that good will prevail over evil in the end? How can you find the strength to go on, if you do not?"
"I do not know what will happen in the end," Halbarad said. "But I will tell you what I believe in. I believe in you. All my hope is in you."
I gave hope to the Dúnedain.
Only now did he fully understand those words, Aragorn realized; only now did he feel the full weight of their irony; now that a world of hopes hung in the balance. "I pray your hope in me was not misplaced," he said softly.
With a groan, Halbarad sat up, looking him straight in the eye. "I said my faith is in you, Aragorn son of Arathorn," he said, his own voice barely a whisper. "My hope is in you. Not in the heir of Isildur - in you." Cocking a weary eyebrow, his cracked lips parted in a wry smile. "Why don't you take some of your own advice? Have faith."
The door of the hut squeaked on its hinges, and both of them struggled to their feet. The denigha emerged alone, leaning on her walking stick and peering up at Dugaric's expectant face. "Well?" he demanded. Beside him, under his protective hand, his son stood pale-faced, knuckles white on the pommel of his sword.
The denigha gave Dugaric a twitch of a wiry eyebrow and stiffly turned back toward the doorway. "Girl! she croaked. "Are you dressed yet? People are waiting." A few moments later, Yenne appeared in the doorway. She walked wordlessly to the denigha's side, though the furtive, hopeful glance she exchanged with her betrothed left Aragorn optimistic about the denigha's verdict. He only hoped Dugaric would accept it.
"Well?" Dugaric repeated. His hand tightened on his son's shoulder. "Is the girl defiled or not? Speak up!"
Yenne flinched at his tone, but the denigha wrapped a skeletal arm around her and guided her forward. "Do not be afraid, child," she croaked in her rusty sing-song manner. "His bark is worse than his bite." Thrusting herself upward to her full height, which amounted to barely above the middle of Dugaric's chest, she announced in a thin but firm voice, "The girl is untouched and undefiled. She is suitable for marriage."
Dugaric's son emitted an audible gasp of relief, and Yenne's face flushed bright red. "Are you sure?" Dugaric asked.
The denigha stomped the point of her walking stick into the ground. "Don't ask stupid questions. Of course I am sure. Now take her home and give her something to eat. Poor thing is exhausted." As if surprised at the group hovering about her still, she turned and shook her stick at them, shooing them back from her cottage. "Go on, go home now. Leave me in peace."
It was Dugaric, finally, who thrust his son forward. "Take your bride," he said. "Take her home."
Grinning broadly, the boy led his horse to Yenne. "Ride my horse," he said. "I'll help you mount."
"Thank you," she said softly, concealing her own smile beneath a fall of her hair. When she was settled in the saddle, Veric handed her the reins and walked beside her as she rode from the clearing.
"True love," Halbarad pronounced with satisfaction.
"Nothing good will come of it, mark my words," Dugaric said gruffly, though Aragorn did not miss the smile leaking from the corners of his bearded mouth. With a heavy sigh, he heaved himself up onto his horse. "Are you coming, Thorongil? We have a wedding feast to prepare. I need to get these two married off before anything else can happen."
Aragorn waved him along. "We'll follow shortly." He glanced at Halbarad. "There is another matter I need to discuss with the denigha."
"Do not trust her." Dugaric's face darkened as he glared at the old woman. "She is as murderous as she is crafty." When Aragorn did not respond, he shrugged. "Well, it is your affair. You have proven you are a wiser man than I."
Aragorn indicated the betrothed couple. "Are you satisfied with the outcome?"
Dugaric shrugged. "I am simple man, and hard-headed. Maybe my son will learn his lessons an easier way." With that, he mounted his horse and nodded farewell.
The denigha watched the Dunlendings until they had passed out of sight around a bend in the path, then turned her attention to Aragorn. "I always thought the men from the north would come back someday."
"You have seen men who look like us before?" Halbarad asked. "Rangers?"
She nodded. "Rangers. Yes. Long, long ago they came here, the men like you."
For the first time in days, Aragorn felt the stirring of hope that his quest would not be in vain. "I would speak to you about them."
The denigha shifted her gaze from one Ranger to the other, squinting as if to better focus her rheumy eyes, finally pointing a gnarled finger at the center of Aragorn's chest. "With you, I will speak. That one," she said, indicating Halbarad, "will wait outside."
"Now, just a minute --" Halbarad objected. He leaned closer to Aragorn and lowered his voice to a growl. "Tell me you don't mean to agree to this."
It was the voice of a man whose last nerve was close to unraveling, a man who would need at least a month before even entertaining the notion of letting his chieftain out of his sight again. Aragorn kept his gaze leveled on the denigha, whose piercing, obsidian stare had not wavered. "It is all right, Halbarad. I think she will do me no harm."
Halbarad shook his shaggy head in disbelief. "You heard what Dugaric said about her! She killed his daughter!"
"I think Dugaric may have been mistaken," Aragorn said, still staring at the denigha. "Why don't you tell us what happened to the child?"
The old woman's deeply hollowed eyes clenched shut. "I was trying to save her," she said softly. "The child could not breathe; her windpipe was closing. I had seen it done once when I was young, the cut on the neck to open the windpipe. There was no time, nothing else left to do. Dugaric walked in to see his daughter choking and a bloody knife in my hands."
"Did you explain this to Dugaric?" asked Halbarad. "He thinks you murdered his child. It's a wonder he hasn't killed you."
"I met Dugaric the day I brought him into this world by his feet," she answered. "He has had a hard life, and become a hard man because of it. If he truly believed I murdered his child, he would have killed me that very night. He knows in his heart it was the gods who took her, not I. But a person is a much more satisfying thing to hate than the gods. I am strong enough to shoulder his blame. Who knows? Maybe I even deserve it." She unclenched a hand from the stick and waved it at the forest, in the direction of the village. "He banished me from the village, but he knows the women still come to me in secret. When they say they are in the forest, gathering berries and roots, they come here, seeking my wisdom – how to have a baby, or not have one, how to ease a child's coughing or the aches that come with age - they come, one by one. They drink my potions to bring them strong sons, and take my remedies home to their sick husbands and children, and no one is the wiser. In a moon or two, Dugaric's wife will bring Yenne back to me, sweet child, and I will tell her whether she bears a grandson for the stubborn old goat. Still, he hates me. Oh, well. This is not such a bad life, I suppose."
"It is a lonely life," said Aragorn.
"I see in your eyes that you know something of loneliness, Dúnadan."
Aragorn flinched at hearing the unexpected word, perfectly pronounced, issue from the denigha's deeply lined lips. "Where did you learn that word?"
She cackled her delight at his astonishment, baring a cryptic, gummy smile. "Come inside, and I will tell you."
"Be careful," Halbarad hissed just before the door shut him out, and Aragorn thought he heard a muffled curse just afterward. Suppressing a faint, irrational chill of alarm as the denigha drove the bolt home, he noted it was a simple bolt at least, with no locking mechanism. The gooseflesh rising on his forearms belied the stuffiness of the room. Illuminated only by slivers of daylight peeking through chinks in the wattle-and-daub walls and a deep glow from smoldering embers in the central hearth, the room was close, airless, and overhung with an aging mixture of cloying, musky odors. Forced to inhale it, Aragorn felt the beginning of a headache in his temples. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to make out a few pieces of furniture shoved against the walls, and pegs slung with shapeless objects. A dark curtain separated the main living area of the shack from what was presumably a sleeping area in the back.
The denigha bent over the fire to light a candle, then shuffled around the room with it, lighting a handful of others that did little to illuminate the soot-blackened walls and ceiling. On one side of the room she bent over a rickety workbench, busying herself for a few minutes with a collection of pottery jars. After dropping pinches from several of the jars into a mortar, she ground them, sprinkled a few drops of water on top, and set the bowl of ground herbs atop the coals of the fire. Within seconds, they had begun to steam, releasing a vapor that made Aragorn's head swim. He took a step backward until his shoulder bumped into a wall he could lean against.
The denigha crumpled into a stack of cushions by the fire and pointed to a similar pile nearby. "Best to sit down," she cautioned him. "The herbs aid memory, but they can make you a bit dizzy. I see you already know what I mean."
Already beginning to regret allowing the denigha to lock Halbarad outside, Aragorn lowered himself awkwardly onto the cushions and rubbed his stinging eyes. "What kind of herbs are you burning?"
"Many kinds," she answered enigmatically. "Their names would mean nothing in your language."
"Few Dunlendings know anything at all of my language," he answered. "Where did you learn it?"
"Why, from them, of course," she said. "From the Dúnedain."
"Where did you meet them?"
"I was just a little girl; I did not know their names. I remember they were tall and immensely handsome, and they were kind to us children. They gave us little gifts; food and bits of ribbon and once, a pair of socks. They were kind to our mothers, too. The men of our clan are rough, you know. They are not evil, but our people are lost, and lost people, listening for a voice to guide them, often listen to the wrong ones. When I first heard the voices of the Dúnedain, the spirits told me it would be a voice like that which would lead our people out of darkness. A voice like yours, Dúnadan."
Aragorn felt a shudder of renewed alarm at being called by his rightful but carefully guarded title twice in the space of a few minutes. There was no way this woman could know his heritage; surely she meant to use the term in its generic sense, not realizing that when applied to him it attached a unique and ponderous specificity. She could not possibly know, yet the word hung in the already heavy air with the weight of all the fears and hopes he had carried here with him. "I came here to find one with a voice like mine," he said. "A boy born to a Dunlending mother of a Dúnadan father, in the years after the flood."
"Ah," she said, climbing laboriously to her feet and pouring something from a flask into a pair of earthenware cups. Handing him one, she raised her own in a Dunlending toast and tipped her head back, swallowing the contents in one gulp. Breathing a sigh of satisfaction, she calmly refilled her cup as he, following custom, dumped the contents of his down his gullet. He nearly choked on the vile liquid even before she uttered her next words. "Bega's son."
He stared at her. "You knew him?"
"He was my playmate." She refilled his cup. "He was just a little older than me. His mother, like most of our mothers, fled to after the famine took her husband and children. She had no other family, none who would claim her, anyway, and my mother said the Northerners took pity on her and paid her to cook and clean for them at their post in Tharbad."
"Then the boy was born after Bega began working for the Dúnedain?" Aragorn's heart sank. He had held out hope that the boy was nothing but a Dunlending orphan for whom childless Arathorn had taken on the role of surrogate father, partly out of pity, partly, maybe, out of a long-suppressed longing for a son he did not yet have. Aragorn's recent experience with the orphan Rolly had taught him how quickly and dangerously such attachments could be formed, how easily long-buried instincts could be aroused.
"Crandic was his name," the denigha said. "My mother said he was one of you, said he looked just like his father, and she would not have said so were it not true, because she was jealous of Bega. She pretended to be scornful of her for having let this foreigner beget a child on her, but even as a child I knew she was secretly jealous that the Northerners took care of her."
Aragorn sat in silence for a long moment after the denigha stopped talking, staring into the embers of the fire. "What of the boy's – what of Crandic's father?"
"I never met him," she said. "He was gone already by the time I was old enough to befriend Crandic, though Crandic never stopped talking about him. He had built Bega a little house, with a proper chimney for a fire, and bought her goats and chickens. He taught Bega to use a bow and Crandic to fish, though he was still too little to be much good at it, I think. There was another Northerner, another Dúnadan, who used to visit, after Crandic's father left. I think he was delivering letters. Crandic showed me the letters once, told me how the markings on the parchment were really words. It didn't make any sense to me, and I accused him of making up lies. That man was gruff and stern and didn't take Crandic fishing. Crandic didn't like him very much."
Halbarad's father, Aragorn thought with foggy amusement. "I never liked him much, either," he heard himself comment dryly. Startled out of a creeping stupor by his own unguarded candor, he corrected his leaning slump and blinked to clear his strangely blurred vision. The soup of cooked herbs floating in the air, combined with whatever was in the denigha's home brew, was making quick work of his already beleaguered consciousness. "What happened to him? Where is Crandic?"
"Gone," the denigha answered. "Come spring one year, both of them were gone. That winter, the snow was thick, and we could not make the trip to Bega's house for more than two turns of the moon. In the spring, when my mother took me there to trade for chickens, we found the house abandoned. There was a fresh grave mound in the pasture, and a wooden marker, but I couldn't read the writing."
"Gone," Aragorn repeated dully. The glimmer of embers in the hearth seemed strangely bright
"Gone just like a hundred other widows and orphans in those hard years. But you have not said why you have come looking for him after all this time. Crandic was older than me, and I am very old, so he should be dead now."
"Maybe he is dead," Aragorn said, for the first time putting voice to a possibility that tasted like guilt in his mouth. He now regretted even passively accepting oblivion for a young boy whose only offense was being born in another's place.
"Bega once told my mother something strange," the denigha said, throwing more herbs into the smudge pot. "She said that her lover looked like a man barely out of boyhood, but that in truth he was older than her father. I sense that you, too, are older than you look. The spirits say our people will fall into a great darkness, but a Northman will come out of the south to save us. What do you think that means, Dúnadan?"
Aragorn wished she would stop calling him that. The faint sizzle of dying embers rose in his ears until it sounded like an inferno, and the heat of the fire burned his face. Suddenly smothering inside his shirt, he fumbled with the lacings, desperate for air. He pulled himself to his feet but stumbled over something on the floor. He lost his balance and crashed into the table laden with herbs, falling on top of it as it collapsed to the floor. In the distance there was the muffled sound of something pounding, and as he lost consciousness, he heard Halbarad's insistent shouts to open the door.
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