My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 22. Betrayal
Gilraen woke with a start, her heart thumping.
The murmurs of the night lay like a mother's caress upon the Valley, the crooning of the wakeful Elves blending with the hoots of the night owl and the peeping music of the frogs. She listened closely. The Elves sang the hymn to the rising Sun. Dawn approached.
Why then this night terror? She knew the signs. She had known all her life that she carried within her some of her mother's Sight. To her own dread. She had not her mother's steadfast serenity in embracing the gift.
She rose from her bed, threw a light robe over her gown and drew slippers onto her feet. She stepped softly through the passageway and crept down the broad, shallow stairway to the front hall, where the triple doors led to the courtyard before Elrond's House. A lantern burned on the step, casting a circle of light that did not reach the faces of the men before her. But she knew by their shadowed figures that two Rangers stood there, one in quiet conference with Lord Erestor; the other—a youth, judging by his lanky shape and lesser height—waited somewhat apart.
The Ranger turned at her approach and bowed his head. "Lady Gilraen."
"Hawk!" Laughing, she embraced him, road dust and all, and kissed his scratchy cheek. "Welcome!"
Hawk reached his arm out to the youth standing behind him. "This is Rodnor, my grandson."
Rodnor murmured respectful and unintelligible words.
"Welcome, Rodnor. I am honored to meet one of my people. But tell me, what brings you to Rivendell?"
Hawk's face grew grave. Erestor stepped forward. "May I suggest that we go into the house and discuss this over some refreshment."
Her heart resumed its thumping, and she had a flash of terror for her son. But she smiled at Hawk and asked after her parents, her brother and his wife and children. "All well, lady," he murmured, inclining his noble head in respect.
In the comfortable sitting room on the ground floor, Erestor revived the banked fire against the early morning chill. With a nod and a smile of greeting to Gilraen, the kitchen maid Luinwen set down a tray of food from the kitchen, and laid mugs, pitchers of hot tea and warm nut cakes on the low table before the fire. Erestor sat in a great carved chair, and Gilraen took a seat on a pillowed bench beside him. Hawk motioned his grandson to a stool and sat on the bench beside Gilraen. Luinwen poured tea, and they drank.
"Now," said Erestor, "begin again for the sake of Lady Gilraen."
Hawk looked up from his warm mug, grasped between both rugged hands. "Ill news, my lady, but do not fear for your son. He has met with no harm, as far as we know."
"But you have heard no word?"
"We would not expect to, yet. He and Halbarad planned to scout the lands from the valley where your lord husband's grave lies, on the way to meet us at our Refuge at Dol Draug. Even if they had reached the other Rangers sooner than planned, the news would have to travel to us at the Angle. No, it is Damrod who has met with ill fortune. Slain in the mountains by a party of Orcs."
Gilraen pressed her hands to her mouth. "I did not know him, but I know too well the grief."
Hawk nodded. "He was just reaching the prime of his young manhood, even as Aragorn. But there is worse to tell. We believe we are finally on the trail of the servants of the Enemy, those who sent that party of Uruks near the Angle last year. Tales have reached us from the hill folk of raids against their flocks, and they speak of evil spirits in the land. Scouts say Orcs have moved south from Gundabad. My grandson and I are on our way to join the Rangers at the Refuge. Beleg commands there now. Iorlas and Ingold are even now preparing to lead a troop on horse from the Weather Hills, and Túrin's men are guarding the way from Gundabad in the north. We must rout out these Orcs before they have taken hold. I only hope we are not too late."
Erestor said, "Our scouts have also seen this, and we will send Elves to patrol the pass and the far side of the mountains, or to join you at the Refuge, if you will."
"I most wished to ask the counsel of Elrond, but you say he is not here?"
"No, nor his sons, nor Glorfindel." Erestor spoke in that firm tone that Gilraen recognized as signifying a refusal to answer further questions. Indeed, she herself did not know where the Master of Rivendell had gone. In her heart, she suspected he had gone to Lothlórien to visit his daughter, who had returned there to live with her mother's kin. May she long remain there, out of the sight of my son.
Hawk sighed. "Well, then, we will do our best without his advice."
Erestor stood up. "Baths and beds have been made ready for you, and a meal will be prepared. You should rest and eat before we make our plans."
"I thank you."
Erestor rose and bowed and withdrew from the room, but Hawk remained at Gilraen's side, staring at the fire with frowning brows. The boy began to climb awkwardly to his feet, but Hawk stopped him with a commanding hand.
"What, no bed, no bath?" Gilraen chided.
Hawk turned his fierce eyes to her face. "I have something to tell you."
Her heart was like an icy sword piercing her chest. She waited in silence.
"Daeron has deserted his post."
Fear bloomed like a weed in her mind. "A traitor."
Hawk scrubbed at his beard with one nervous hand. "All we know is that he quarreled with Túrin, arguing that the command should move to the South. Túrin denied him, and he was gone the next day. It was Damrod who brought the news to the Refuge."
"Where is this deserter now?"
"We don't know. He vanished as if the earth had swallowed him; even our best trackers can't find him. I fear the worst, my lady."
"If he is turned traitor, he will try to kill my son again. I know it."
"Think beyond even that dread thing. If he is turned traitor, he will reveal all our secrets to the enemy, including the way to Thurnost."
She covered her face in her hands. Blood, death, terror. All my loved ones, all the children, all our hope. Estel. "You must find him. This time, put him to death."
"You are hard, lady."
She clasped her hands in her lap. "All my pity left me when I heard of his murderous attack on my son."
Hawk huffed in chagrin. "Aragorn had the opposite reaction, and he convinced even me, who believed the worst. And, as I think you know, there are some who question Aragorn's story."
"I know it well, and I am ashamed of my own people for it. Do they now blame him that a traitor is loose?" she cried bitterly.
"There's no time for blame. We must find him, even if it is only a corpse that we find."
Gathering her strength, she rose, holding her arms straight and close to her body in determination. "Then, Captain Hawk, we had best get busy and prepare."
But in her quarters, alone with her fears, she could not keep the tears from coming, thinking of her son at his father's grave, of the threat that now hung over them all. Even after all that had happened, she did not want to believe that Daeron was a traitor. Flashes of memory came to her—his shy face when first they acknowledged their betrothal; his gentle respect. He had never even dared to kiss her, only to hold her hand in a kind of amazed rapture. Long ago, with shame, she had acknowledged, if only to herself, that his admiration had gone to her young head, and she had acted as if she felt more than she did. But I didn't even know that myself—until Arathorn showed me what real love is.
She had, of course, not been present when her father told Daeron the betrothal was broken. She had not even known that Arathorn had asked for her. So young I was, so dazzled with his attentions.
She had known nothing of the duel between her two suitors until Beleg ran into the Keep, shouting for the healer. Arathorn had put out Daeron's eye in a challenge. Even then, the murmurs had gone around Thurnost: Daeron dared raise arms against the Chieftain's son! Our law forbids it.
But Arador insisted that the man had been punished enough. And Arathorn came to her and said, "You are mine now." When he touched her, her very bones melted within her body.
Trembling, her face burning with memory, she dressed in her working clothes, a huge apron covering all, a cloth wrapped around her braided hair. In the kitchen she found the cooks already at work. Luinwen was covered in flour as she made waybread for the party going to war. For war it is, though the numbers be small, our very lives are at stake. In silence she took her place.
All that day, and the next, they gathered supplies, packed, consulted maps, and planned. She drew the youth, Rodnor, to her as a helper and mothered him as if he were Estel returned to childhood.
Hawk laughed, "You will quite put him off. He yearns for manhood, that one, like any lad of sixteen."
But Gilraen knew better. His mother, Hawk's daughter, had died when he was but a babe, he told her, and she saw the wistfulness in his eyes. She knew, too, that his twin brother had died horribly in the Troll hunt, though Rodnor did not speak of it. She gave him a warm cloak that her son had worn before he grew out of it, and for the celebration of music and poetry that night, she dressed Rodnor in a handsome embroidered tunic of dark blue, and took his arm as they walked to the Hall of Fire. As she had expected, he sat in silent awe and enchantment as the song rose and fell with the thrumming harps and melodic flutes of the ancient Elvish lays.
Lately—she knew quite well why—songs of Beren and Lúthien had fallen out of favor in Rivendell. But Lindir had composed a new song about the Nirnaeth Arnoediad and the last stand of Maedhros and Maglor against the might of Angband, when the sons of Ulfang the Easterling went over to Morgoth and betrayed the hopes of the Elves and the Edain.
Gilraen closed her eyes and whispered to herself the words from the ancient tale. Yet neither by wolf, nor by Balrog, nor by Dragon, would Morgoth have achieved his end, but for the treachery of Men. Sorrow washed over her like a cold winter rain.
The beauty of the music convinced Rodnor that it must be true that Elvish minstrels could bring their songs to life before the eyes of their listeners.
Maybe he could ask them to sing about Rodnion.
Rodnor hoped that he did not look as dazed as he felt: like a child in a wonderland of treats. No, like a mere mortal kneeling before the thrones of the Valar, or so he imagined. Indeed, while the Elves all treated him kindly, he could not shake off a shadow of fear. They were so strange. Some had eyes like fire burned their spirits. Inhuman, he thought, and laughed at himself. Of course they are inhuman. They did not die, did not sicken, did not wither with age, like the lady Saelind had done. Even when their bodies died, their spirits still lived in this world. Ghosts. How had Aragorn grown up here? He must ask him about it.
Over the course of the few days in Rivendell, he managed, he thought, to avoid falling into childish awe and dread—until the day he and his grandfather gathered with Erestor to consult about their journey. The map itself was enough to make his jaw drop: A piece of parchment larger than any he had ever seen, even in the Commons, and covered with inks of red, gold, blue and black, of a delicacy and grace beyond his imagination.
Hawk drummed his broad fingers upon the table. "You say the scouts will return from the eastern slopes within the next two days?"
"I expect them, yes," Erestor answered. "Their reports will be worth carrying to the Rangers at the Refuge."
"We will wait till then to leave," Hawk said. "Show me the path they have taken."
Erestor's long, slender finger traced the trail up to the High Pass and beyond. "Their plan is to turn north to the Rhimdath, then cross the mountains again and return along the lower slopes to the Valley, one of the ways you may go. If there is any sign of the enemy in those lands, they will know."
Hawk scratched at his grey-bearded cheek. "We should have asked for a rendezvous at Wolf's Head. But it is too late now."
Erestor shook his elegant head. "Our captain does not know your secret. I myself have not been there since before the time of Aranarth."
Rodnor exclaimed, "What—Aranarth—you mean—" He shuddered at the eyes full of light that the Elf lord turned to his face.
"Yes, I fought with the first Rangers, the Dúnedain of Arthedain," Erestor said gravely, "dwelling at the Refuge to spy on and harry the forces of Rhudaur. Our hideout was never discovered by the forces of Angmar, so well is it hidden at Wolf's Head, even during the final battle when Rivendell itself was besieged. Elves and Men fought and died side by side then."
Rodnor could feel his face turning red. He said nothing in his embarrassment, but he could not take his eyes away from the Elf lord's bright eyes. Erestor smiled. "My memory goes back to Doriath and the court of Thingol and Melian. I was among the last who fled with the princess Elwing, Elrond's mother, when the sons of Fëanor slew our lord Dior and the princes were taken. It is not always the Great Enemy who we fight, alas."
Rodnor shivered under the scrutiny of those ancient eyes. Can he read my mind? Does he see how afraid I am?
His grandfather glared at him, one fierce eyebrow raised, and, clearing his throat, turned back to the map. "The only good bit of news is that Daeron was never posted there, so he does not know the way. But now the name of Wolf's Head, Dol Draug, will be known to the Enemy. We do not know how long we will remain safe, nor how far back his treason goes."
Rodnor swallowed the lump in his throat as the memory of his grandfather's words flashed in his mind: He will reveal all our secrets to the Enemy, including the way to Thurnost. How could a Ranger betray his own people, foreswear his oath pledged for his rayed star? Daeron had always worn his with such pride. Even the Elves can turn against their people, and Erestor remembers it. Is that so different from going over to the Enemy? How can I trust anyone?
That night, their last in Rivendell, Rodnor lay long sleepless in bed, staring at the faint stars through the window. He hoped that he, too, would fight and die bravely when the time came.
The land lay eerily quiet and bleak as Hawk and Rodnor wound their way through the rocky downs north of Rivendell. After climbing out of the Valley along the road to the High Pass, they turned west, away from the mountains, to trudge through the fells, grassy rolling ridges dotted with boulders and trees gnarled by the wind from the north. There was no sign of living creatures beyond the spoor and tracks of wild animals. They saw no people and no evidence that Men had ever lived in this land, until, on the fourth day, they stumbled upon the ancient remains of a road, now crumbled stone amid the bright grasses and falling leaves of autumn. A narrow earthen track lay beside it, worn by the feet of shepherds and their flocks, for this land, once called Rhudaur, the third kingdom of the Northern Dúnedain until it fell under the power of the Sorcerer, now belonged to the hill folk—or what remained of them.
Their pace quickened as they followed the trail, looking sharply for signs of recent passage. But no signs of Men's campfires, nor foraging nor dung of their beasts, were to be seen.
That night, Rodnor woke to see his grandfather standing silent and stern, staring into the night. Rodnor sat up, and saw fire leaping into a blaze in the north.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"I don't know," said Hawk grimly. "It may only be the dry grass ablaze. But we must go there and find out."
At the first light of dawn, they struck out at a quickened pace, making for the white smoke that now plumed over the far hills. For half a day they trudged toward the drifting smoke, until a chill autumn rain began to fall. Rodnor wrapped his cloak around him to block the wind, shielding his face with the deep hood.
The reek of the smoking ruins hit him first: the stench of thatch, wood, and flesh. Hawk loosened his sword in its scabbard, and Rodnor tightened the buckles on his oiled leather jerkin and strung his bow. They circled to the north of the place where the remnants of the fire smoldered under the rain. They peered through the shelter of the thick brush, hung with yellowing leaves and black with soot, and saw what remained of a shepherds' settlement: Ruined heaps of burnt huts, three in all, a sodden burnt field of unharvested grain, and over all, the stink of smoldering embers and wet ash. At the edge of the beaten track into the settlement lay three dead Orcs, their foul hides bristling with arrows. Beside the first heap of ash lay the body of an old woman, still and ghastly in her death.
They crept along the shelter of a stone wall and peered cautiously over it. One of the enemy still remained. A mountain Orc limped through the cinders, its snouted face distorted with rage, one arm dangling useless at its side. Its blood shone black on its greenish scales. It snarled and muttered, "Leave me here, will ya, scum? I'll see to that!" It kicked the old woman's body. "Only a dried up old biddy, and you took all the sheep."
Hawk caught Rodnor's eye and jerked his beard to the right. Rodnor nodded and crept along the ground till he reached the crumbled end of the low wall, waiting for his captain's signal. With a savage shout Hawk heaved a rock toward the Orc, and at the same moment, as the Orc's head turned sharply toward the sound, Rodnor rose in one smooth movement and shot an arrow through the lumpish body. Even before the surprise could register on his hideous face, he fell to the ground.
Hawk leaped to the creature's side and pressed his knife under the long chin.
"Tarks," the Orc spit. "You can kill me, but more will come. You're doomed."
Hawk pushed his knife into the beast's scaly neck. "I'll hang you by your entrails unless you talk."
In what followed, Rodnor found strength in remembering his brother's shattered body, mangled in the Troll's jaws. Now I seek revenge. But the Orc gave them nothing but his slow death. As the last breaths rattled through the monster's throat, Hawk stood up, cast his knife to the ground, and cursed. Sweat dripped down his face. Rodnor could not look at him.
Hawk grunted in disgust. "Come, boy, let's leave this hellish spot."
"The old woman? Should we not bury her?" Rodnor asked. He had covered the still face with a scrap of cloth.
"No time," said Hawk harshly. "And we do not know their rites."
An oppressive silence lay like fog across the land. As Rodnor followed Hawk across the rugged trail, he hummed soundless tunes to shake the horrors out of his head. I am a man now. It is not as glorious as I had imagined.
Suddenly long, deep howls broke the dead gloom. Hawk stopped in his tracks and drew his sword, thrusting his other hand back to stop Rodnor. A swift, low shape moved through the scrubby trees. Fear running through his body, Rodnor strung his bow.
But when the grey beast leaped through the dark trees, his arrow missed. The lean, fell animal flew through the air, a huge red maw lined with yellow teeth snarling and slavering. Hawk fell to the ground, the beast clamping its jaws around his arm. His sword falling from his hand, Hawk pounded the creature with his fist.
Screaming and sobbing, Rodnor leaped at the beast and began to thrust with his dagger into the thick hide. His blade could not penetrate the grey fur, reeking of smoke and blood.
"Run, boy!" shouted Hawk as the wolf's jaws reached for his throat.
But Rodnor stabbed at the beast's neck, seeking an entry to the flesh. As he lifted his arm for another blow, yet another shape moved through the trees.
A man leaped at them, his face grimacing in rage, his empty eye socket twitching as he swung his glittering blade.
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