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Unto the ending of the world: 24. Chieftain
May 17 – 27, 3019
Halbarad was less than half an hour from Caras Dirnen when he heard a rider come up fast behind him. As he turned in the saddle to see who it was, the other already hailed him.
"Father! I did not expect you back yet," Halmir called out. He went on as he coaxed his horse to fall in alongside Halbarad, "I was taking this lad here for a run. He becomes restless if he spends too much time in the stables." As if to prove Halmir's words, the horse pulled at its reins and attempted to snap at Halbarad's mount.
"Any news?" Halbarad asked once his son had his horse back under control.
"No news from outside, and the town is quiet, but Mother went to Ringlanthir five days ago," Halmir replied. "She did not think she would be away for more than a week."
Halbarad nodded. He had hoped that Dineth would be there to meet him, but he had also asked her to go see Aragorn's reeve soon. Halmir seemed lost in thought, and they rode in silence until Halmir halted as they came past the archery range.
Following Halmir's glance, Halbarad saw that Haldan was at the range. His youngest son remained oblivious to their presence even when he walked over to the target to pick up his arrows. Halbarad waited until Haldan was done with his next round before moving on.
"Your brother's archery looks much improved," he observed once they were out of hearing.
"He has been working hard," Halmir said.
"Did you practise with him?" Halbarad asked.
"A bit, but most of what you see is down to Hunthor. He has spent much time sparring and practising archery with some of the older boys."
"Hunthor?" Halbarad would not have thought Hunthor had the patience to teach.
"Yes," said Halmir. "He said that he might as well spend his leave in a useful manner. He seems to enjoy the task."
"Speaking of Hunthor, did you talk to him as I asked you?" Halbarad asked when they entered the Keep's courtyard. Halmir nodded, but did not reply immediately.
Mindful of the healing cut on his leg, Halbarad tried to make it look as if he dismounted with ease. The wound had been only just deep enough for him to have the healer look at it, but it made bending his leg to get on and off a horse awkward. Doing so without putting too much of a strain on the stitches had been difficult, and the first few days of the ride home he had only managed by accepting a leg up from one of Hithaeron's Elves. At least, with the villagers more at ease around the Rangers, the days he had spent in Bree to give his leg time to heal had not been wasted. He scowled at the frustration of having to let the patrols that chased down the remaining ruffians ride out without him.
Now, though, even if he no longer needed help, his movement was still awkward enough that it made Halmir raise a questioning eyebrow.
Halbarad shrugged. "It is little more than a scratch."
Halmir gave him another dubious look, but only said, "The messenger from Bree mentioned you were wounded."
"It truly is nothing." It had kept him in Bree longer than he had wished, but the cut was healing well, even if it was still a bit sore by the end of each day and itched enough to drive him to distraction. Both should be over soon, or so Halbarad hoped. "You had more to say about Hunthor?" he asked to change the subject.
"Yes," Halmir said. "We spoke, but if there is anything that bothers him, he will not talk about it. He says he understands why you would not let him go to Bree, and that he is not troubled by it."
"What do you think?'
'Give him a patrol soon; it will be better for him to be out and about."
"And what about you?"
"I wish I could go out," Halmir replied as they led their horses into the stables. "But Lossë would not appreciate it were I to head into the Wild six weeks before the wedding. She already... Half the women in town are saying that with such a hasty betrothal, she is likely with child, and the other half add that if so, it was only done to entrap the Chieftain's son in marriage. If I go on patrol now, no doubt they will say to her that I intend to run and abandon her." Halmir spoke softly, but his disgust was clear. "Unless there is something you need me for, of course," he added with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
"I cannot help you with the town gossips; you would do better to call in your mother's aid on that, or Mairen's," Halbarad said – he did not point out to Halmir that it was hardly surprising that there was talk; the betrothal had been sudden, and given a chance, tongues would wag. Unpleasant as it was, it would pass soon enough, and the sooner for being ignored. "And Borlas is your captain now," he reminded Halmir. "But I do have something to do for you."
Halmir's expression was carefully blank. "Not a patrol," Halbarad added quickly. "I will call a session of the Council as soon as all Councillors can be here, and as my heir you should take your place beside me."
Though he looked even more reluctant at that prospect than at the suggestion of a patrol, Halmir agreed quickly, adding, "How long will you be busy here?"
"Not too long."
"Then I will see you at home later," Halmir replied as he walked off.
Once Halmir was gone, Halbarad headed across the courtyard. He should be done well before dark; he only needed to write the messages summoning the councillors to Caras Dirnen and have them sent.
The messages were soon written, and Halbarad quickly read the few reports that were there. The eastern companies were holding their own, even pushing the Orcs back towards the mountains, and with the passes still closed, the captains expected no problems until the weather in the mountains improved.
The next day Halbarad went to the Keep so he could let the healer take out his stitches. Otherwise he could only wait until the Councillors started arriving. Bregor might have the list of weaknesses in Caras Dirnen's defences that he had said he would look into, and he could take some time to mend his gear. He wondered briefly whether he should perhaps go to
Rivendell and return Arwen's letters to Aragorn to her, but he might not be back in time, nor did he think Arwen would be pleased to see him.
The following day, Halmir suggested that they should spar to see how his leg was doing, and Halbarad agreed gladly. The practice would be good for them both and it was better than trying to find things to occupy him in the Keep.
"Sword and shield?" Halmir asked when they approached the practice field.
Halbarad agreed and they put on gambesons while Haldan ran off to collect practice weapons from the armoury. It was early and still quiet, so Haldan would be their only audience, at least at first.
As soon as they had their swords, Halmir started circling, hoping to find an opening. Halbarad waited, trying how his leg responded as he turned to block his son. Halmir was waiting very long before he attacked, trying to get in on Halbarad's wounded side. There. No, a feint.
Again, Halmir moved forward slightly, but stopped as soon as Halbarad raised his shield. This can go on all morning, Halbarad thought and stepped aside again, forcing Halmir to move to the right. Halmir would not attack until he saw an opportunity, and Halbarad was not about to give him one. Suddenly, Halbarad saw the opening Halmir had left him, and he quickly stepped forward rather than sideways, bringing his shield up to block a counterstrike at the same time as he struck his son's left shoulder.
Though Halmir must have felt the hit – even with blunted swords and the heavy padding in their gambesons, a strike still hurt – he immediately reacted and it was only a fast sidestep that avoided a painful encounter between the elbow of Halbarad's sword arm and the edge of Halmir's shield.
They both grinned as their eyes met, and as if by agreement fell back towards a defensive position, though Halmir attacked again almost immediately, increasing the pace of the match and attempting to push Halbarad into a mistake.
After about an hour, Halmir signalled a pause. Halbarad looked around and saw that Haldan was no longer the only one watching them. There were several Rangers, and... Dineth? She was still in riding clothes, so must only just have come back. He raised a hand to wave at her.
"Father, will you practice with me also after you and Halmir are done?" Haldan, who had come over as soon as they stopped, asked eagerly.
"You can take your turn now," Halmir said immediately.
"Then tell your mother I will be over after this," Halbarad said, taking a wet cloth and a drink of water from Haldan. "And bring back some wasters and a gambeson for Haldan from the armoury." As Halmir ran over to Dineth, Halbarad noticed Lossiel standing beside her, making it obvious why Halmir had given up his place to his brother so quickly. Had it not been for Haldan's request, he would have been glad to join Halmir, but this should not take too long.
Haldan did not protest about fighting with wooden swords, and after he had put on his gambeson, rather than rushing in immediately – as he would have done not all that long ago – he waited, moving about trying to find a good position for his first attack. Halbarad parried the attack without trouble when it came, and on the second strike disarmed his son.
His first parry in the second round nearly had Haldan lose his sword again. Halbarad forced himself to hold back more. Even if Dineth was waiting, he found he wanted to see how Haldan bore himself in a longer fight.
"Mind your grip," he warned Haldan as he stepped back slightly, waiting for the next attack.
Haldan shifted his stance and tightened his hold on his blade before moving forward again. Halbarad watched him closely. Haldan had been late to come into his growth, but even gangly and awkward as he could still be, it was not hard to see the man he would become, rather than the boy he yet was.
It was difficult to hold back so much, even in a practice match. Halbarad could have easily ended the round several times already, but he was pleased to see Haldan thinking about what he was doing more than he had in the past. Haldan was too hesitant about following through on his strikes, causing Halbarad to wonder whether his son was afraid that he would hurt him if he hit him.
Men did get wounded in sparring bouts, even when they fought with wooden swords. With a sudden pang of grief, Halbarad remembered two young Ranger recruits – he had not been much older than Haldan – being lectured at great length by their captain, after a practice fight had left him with three broken fingers and Aragorn with a bruised rib and a lump on his head. It had not even been the hurts themselves that had led to the dressing-down, but that they had let themselves be carried away to the point of turning practising a set of moves into a full fighting match.
Haldan attacked again and Halbarad let him come much closer before he parried to draw his son into striking with more determination. On the next move, Haldan almost got past his guard, and Halbarad had to sidestep faster than he had anticipated to parry the attack. This time, Haldan struck again immediately, rather than stepping back before his next attack. Halbarad was still slightly off balance, and before he could parry, Haldan's strike hit him full on his wounded leg.
The hit was hard enough that he almost doubled over as he gasped for breath from the sudden shock of pain. Even so, moving through the pain, he straightened up, stepping forward and raising his sword to a defensive position, before Haldan could follow up on the attack and finish the round.
He must learn not to strike with the flat of the blade, Halbarad thought, at the same time relieved that Haldan had, since it would hurt even worse if his son had hit him with the edge, even with practice blades. Still hurts more than when that ruffian got me the first time.
Halbarad only just registered the shocked expression on Haldan's face as his next charge not only swept Haldan's sword from his hand, but also bore him to the ground.
"That was not fair!" Haldan said, looking up at him indignantly. "I thought I had hurt you, I was waiting to see if you were well, and then you attacked again."
"In battle, that kind of 'fair' will have you dead," Halbarad said grimly. "Do not ever think you have won, just because you wounded your opponent." Haldan looked embarrassed at the correction, and Halbarad went on. "If you see an advantage, take it. You were watching before, were you not? Did you not see your brother trying to get in on my left?"
"Yes, but that was not fair either," Haldan said stubbornly, as he took the hand Halbarad offered to pull him up.
Halbarad sighed. "Would an Orc spare my wounded side, if he knew about it?"
"No, I suppose not," Haldan answered, looking thoughtful, then asked with a sudden grin, "Can I have another round? I promise I will try to hit you again."
"You think I would give you an opening twice?" Halbarad answered, meanwhile checking that the hit had not opened the wound. It would appear not, even if it still hurt more than he cared to admit.
"Likely not," Haldan admitted. "But will you mind if I do try, father?"
He grinned widely at the challenge. "You may try."
In the third round, Haldan fought with more confidence, and managed another hit, though on his arm rather than his leg. Halbarad still had to hold back to keep the fight going, but at least his son had lost his reticence over striking him.
Once the bout was over, Halbarad at last walked over to Dineth, Haldan following behind.
"Well-fought," he heard Halmir say to Haldan, but the kiss Dineth greeted him with was more than enough to distract him from what their sons were saying.
"That first hit looked bad," she observed as they walked home a short time later.
"It was nothing." Halbarad shrugged, stopping himself from scratching at the wound, which itched ferociously all of a sudden. "How was your trip to see the reeve?" he went on, ignoring her annoyed look at the change of subject.
"Well enough. Enerdhil seems to be honest, and competent in his work, but there is no need to pretend about your leg," she insisted.
Halbarad merely nodded at first, then gave in and told her how he had been wounded. She would only suspect worse if he claimed again that it was nothing. "Now tell me about your findings."
"I already knew that Enerdhil has a good reputation, and what I saw confirmed that. After the news of Aragorn's death reached Ringlanthir, he expected that someone would come from Caras Dirnen to inspect his books and his office." Dineth raised a hand to stop Halbarad from interrupting. "Yes, that would have given him time to hide things, but the books showed no signs of tampering. There were a few mistallied figures, but nothing worse; and any disputes were handled fairly and reasonably. I even visited two farms to confirm my conclusions. I think you should keep Master Enerdhil."
"Then I will do so," Halbarad replied, relieved that he would not have to look for a new reeve. If necessary, Dineth could have taken over, at least for the short term, but it was better to not change anything that did not need changing.
"Are you still set on becoming a Ranger?" Halbarad asked Haldan that evening. He noticed Dineth's frown at the question, and gave her an apologetic glance. It had been Haldan's wish long enough that it should be no surprise to her, and the practice fight that morning had confirmed Halbarad's feeling that his son was ready. And better that he had at least some training once the war came.
"Yes," Haldan replied, sounding almost solemn.
"Then I think you can start your training this year."
"Really?" Solemnity was quickly replaced by a smile.
"Yes, really." Halbarad smiled back, though he wondered how long that enthusiasm would last. Haldan would do well enough, but no recruit had it easy.
The days after Dineth's return from Ringlanthir passed quietly. At first, Halbarad found his mood lighter than it had been for some time, but soon the wait for the Councillors began to dominate his thoughts. Even knowing that it might be another week before the Council was complete, Halbarad found it hard to control his impatience. The Council was likely to prove a hard test, and he wanted it behind him. Yet this was much like the wait before any battle, with all in readiness, and nothing to do but wait for the enemy to make his move.
It was now five days since the messengers had gone out, and the first Councillors should be arriving soon. There had been messengers from Fornost and Bree, telling Halbarad the ruffians were all but hunted down; he would have at least one success to announce in the Council. He could only wait and see how the Councillors would react to Bree finding out what the Rangers were, but that paled in comparison to the One Ring back in Sauron's hand, and having to reveal his own role in Aragorn's deception about the Ring.
As he walked to the Keep, Halbarad noticed two riders ahead of him, one of them Borlas. He was about to hail him when he saw that the man beside his lieutenant was Mallor, and that they were deep in conversation. As far as Halbarad knew, the two had never been particularly friendly; all they had in common was their hometown. Perhaps they had merely happened to travel together, but the sight roused Halbarad's suspicion. If Mallor did intend to challenge Aragorn's decision, and the Lord of Celonhad was gauging what support he had among the Rangers, it made sense that he would speak to Borlas. Yet what was in it for Borlas? What could he gain from supporting Mallor?
It took another four days for the rest of the Councillors to arrive. Halbarad made sure to greet each as he arrived, letting him take their measure. Between arrivals, though he yearned for activity, he spent his time studying ancient scrolls and books, and hoped he would have time to learn all that he needed to know. At last, with the arrival of Hatholdir, Councillor for the villages outside the Angle, the Councillors were all there. Halbarad summoned them to convene the next day.
The morning of the Council, Halbarad woke up earlier than he had for some time. He quietly made his way to the back of the garden, so that he could pace about without disturbing Dineth or the boys. Outside, he immediately saw he need not have worried about waking Halmir at least; his son was sitting on the low stone border of a vegetable bed, pipe in hand. It was not all that surprising that Halmir was restless. Halbarad might be tense over the Council and all that was at stake, but he had some experience with them. Halmir had never been present at a Council meeting.
Halmir turned his head to look at him as he sat down. "How do you think the day will go?"
"I know not," Halbarad said tersely. His son did not ask further, but merely nodded. All too soon for Halbarad's liking, the sky in the east was starting to lighten. Soon, it would be time to go to the Keep.
Outside the door of the Council chamber, Halbarad paused to put on the Star of Elendil, then took a deep breath before entering. Inside, the first thing Halbarad noticed when he entered the Council chamber was that Mallor was not yet there, nor was Borlas. Any doubt that Mallor intended to challenge Aragorn's decision and put forward a claim of his own was now gone.
Halbarad looked around the long table, considering the men sitting there. He was reasonably certain of Angrod and Hatholdir, Edrahil would likely follow Mallor's lead, and the other two he did not know. But what would he do if the Council ruled in Mallor's favour? To step aside was unthinkable. Even were Mallor competent to lead the defence of the Angle, Aragorn had laid that task on him. Would he risk destroying the Dúnedain in a kin-strife as devastating as the breaking of Arnor? That had been Aragorn's fear, and Halbarad knew he could not let it come to that. He had to come out of this with the Council behind him.
There was still some time as Halbarad sat down, and he wished he felt as calm as he appeared. Halmir sat down next to him, looking decidedly nervous. At the appointed hour Mallor and Borlas had still not arrived, leaving Halbarad no other choice than to begin. "My lords, I have summoned you here to receive your renewed fealty for the lands you hold, and to affirm your place on this Council. There are also matters of defence on which I would hear your counsel."
Several Councillors wanted to speak, and when Lord Angrod, who normally led meetings of the Council, did not step in, Halbarad nodded at Edrahil who had stood first. The Councillor for the eastern villages fidgeted and cleared his throat, and Halbarad realised the Councillors were as tense as he was.
"I want to see the provisions our lord made. I understand that his will was set down in writing?" Edrahil said finally.
"It was." Halbarad gestured at Halmir to unroll the scrolls he had brought in anticipation of this point.
Lord Hatholdir was the first to speak once all had read the scrolls. "I have no argument with what is set out here. I say we proceed with the oath-taking, and hear what else our Chieftain wishes to lay before the Council."
Galion of Athrad was not so quickly convinced. "Before we can come to the taking of oaths, I have some questions that I would have answered. First, why did Aragorn declare that the line of the Kings would die with him, when there are others who can reckon their descent directly from Isildur?"
Lord Vëantur interrupted to ask Halbarad, "I would know that as well, as well as why you were not named Heir as well as Chieftain."
"Did you forget then, Vëantur, that Halbarad's mother was born out of wedlock, and that he is thus not automatically in the line of inheritance?" Edrahil asked.
"Even so, he is closest in blood," the lord of Ringlanthir replied. "And had Aragorn, lacking an heir of his body, chosen to name Halbarad as his heir in the line of the Kings, I for one would have supported that decision."
Angrod spoke next, addressing Halbarad directly again, "Aragorn did not name you as Isildur's Heir, but he did entrust the heirlooms of Isildur's line to you. That is enough for me. I will swear."
Just as the Councillor for the western villages finished, the door opened, and Mallor strode in, Borlas close behind him. "I will not," he announced and walked over to Hatholdir to take the scrolls. After reading them quickly, he turned to address Halbarad. "We must have a Great Council."
Edrahil nodded his head in agreement with Mallor. Galion looked uncertain, while the others showed little reaction.
Halbarad nearly laughed at the demand. "A Great Council? Why?" He was now glad he had spent some of his time waiting for the Councillors in studying the laws of succession in detail.
After the division of Arnor, the second King of Arthedain had established a law to avert similar conflict in future; any dispute over the succession within Isildur's line was to be judged by a Great Council that consisted not just of the King's Councillors and other high nobles of the realm, but of all who held rank down to village mayors and Ranger captains.
The law had never been needed yet, nor, strictly speaking, did it apply now, Halbarad knew, and he suspected Mallor was aware of that too. Had Aragorn named him as Heir, a Great Council would have been almost unavoidable. As it was, Aragorn had deftly avoided the problem while still making sure Halbarad would have the authority he needed. Even so, if just two members of the Council supported Mallor's demand, he would have no choice but to have a Great Council assembled. He would likely still prevail, but they could not afford weeks of further delay while the finer points of the laws of succession were debated.
"Why?" Mallor retorted. "With Isildur's direct line ended, all who count their descent from Isildur's heirs must be considered."
Hatholdir stood up to speak. "Considered for what? Lord Mallor, there is no succession to be considered. Aragorn did not choose Halbarad as his successor in the line of Isildur, but appointed him Chieftain only." His slight emphasis on appointed was not lost on the other Councillors, who now all turned to Mallor to await his response.
"That may well be so," Mallor allowed, giving the other Councillor a rather condescending nod of his head. If he was taken aback by the quick rebuttal of his argument, he did not show it, immediately changing his approach as he went on. "But Aragorn chose, you say? Appointed? I would be the last to deny that our late and lamented lord was an extraordinary man, but at the time he made those decisions, he was grievously wounded – a belly wound, and made by the Enemy's weapons, from what I have heard – and he must have suffered unbearable pain. Pain and poppy juice alike affect judgement and will. Did he not also relinquish Arvedui's claim in Gondor? How then can we believe that he was able to think rationally about his decisions?"
Halbarad cursed inwardly. Mallor might be well on his way to proving that he had more ambition than wit, but he was still twisty as a snake. Hatholdir and Angrod both looked at him, but before he could answer Mallor, Halmir had jumped up to speak.
"He had not taken poppy juice. He was of clear mind!" he exclaimed.
"You would say that," Mallor sneered. "And you expect me to believe you?"
"Mallor, there is no need for that," Galion said disapprovingly.
"There is every need," the lord of Celonhad countered. "As the son of the man who stands to profit most from this, the lad is hardly an impartial witness."
Profit? If Mallor thought he wanted to be Chieftain, he indeed measured all others by his own standard. Halbarad cast a brief glance at his son; it would be understandable, but he hoped Halmir would not react immediately to having his reliability, his honour, questioned. Next, Halbarad's gaze fell on Borlas. His second had remained silent and outwardly unmoved through all that had been said so far.
Mallor spoke again. "Captain, did you not witness the Chieftain's will also?" He barely paused to let Borlas confirm he had before going on. "Then I ask you whether you thought our lord, mortally wounded and in pain as he was, was of sound and clear mind when he dictated this scroll?"
Borlas stood up, but waited to speak. He looked long at Mallor before moving on to Halmir, whom he gave no more than a cursory glance. When he met Halbarad's eyes, his gaze was unreadable.
The longer Borlas stayed silent, the more Halbarad's tension grew. Despite their many differences of opinion, he had always thought Borlas an honourable man. Would his second speak the truth or would he perjure himself to throw in his fate with Mallor?
Still Borlas did not speak. The Councillors were starting to stir, but Halbarad kept his eyes on his lieutenant, keeping himself as still as if waiting in ambush for an enemy.
Finally, Borlas spoke. "Yes." He had to stop and wait before he could make himself heard again over the Councillors' reactions. "Yes, he was of sound and clear mind."
Halbarad let go the breath he had barely noticed he was holding; he could still not fathom Borlas' expression. Mallor's anger, though, was clear to see. Halbarad could only hope this had been his final attempt, and they could now proceed with the oath-taking.
"I see you have all decided alrea..." Mallor started, but Hatholdir cut him off.
"Mallor, unless you have any arguments that will hold, let it go. We would all like to finish this," the Councillor said, then turned to Halbarad. "My lord Chieftain, if you will proceed?"
Resisting the urge to check that the Star of Elendil sat properly on his brow, Halbarad took a deep breath before speaking the words that would start the oath-taking. "If there is any who would question my right to receive the oaths of those assembled here, then let him stand and speak."
Even Mallor was silent. Not that Halbarad believed there would not be more trouble from him, but at least his attempt to be named as Isildur's Heir was defeated, though Halbarad could not help but wonder how serious the bid had been if Mallor abandoned it so easily. Even so, Halbarad scarcely felt more at ease than before; he had won the Council's support, but would he still have it after the years of deception over the One Ring were revealed to them?
Halbarad drew Andúril, holding the sword before him point-down. The Councillors would swear in order of age; as his heir, Halmir would be last, even if he had not been the youngest present.
First to step forward was Angrod, the eldest of the Councillors. Angrod knelt before him, clasping Halbarad's hand on Andúril's hilt between his own. Halbarad put his other hand atop Angrod's, indicating that the other should speak. The unfamiliar Quenya of the ancient oath came haltingly from the Councillor's lips.
As the other Councillors filed past to swear to him, Halbarad's thoughts inevitably went back to the oaths he had sworn to Aragorn, both the Rangers' oath and a lord's oath of fealty. The memory was a distraction and he turned his thoughts to the oath itself.
Its words were as old as the Dúnedain, virtually unchanged since the first lords of Númenor had sworn to Elros – the only changes made to accommodate their people's changing fortunes. It would not even surprise Halbarad if the wording of the oaths sworn by Hador's or Barahir's men had been much the same; he quickly put that thought aside also – to consider the weight of history behind what took place here was almost as bad as thinking of Aragorn.
At last all Councillors had sworn, even Mallor. Only Halmir remained, and clearly still not at ease in front of the Council, he rushed through the oath, the expression of sheer relief on his face as he sat down again almost comical. To his surprise, Halbarad was starting to feel more at ease. Though what was still to come might well be the hardest part, and the Council held more authority than a captains' assembly, he had found their debate not all that different, and he had always handled the captains well enough.
Halbarad now allowed the Councillors, and himself, some rest before calling for the Council to resume. He wondered again how they would take the news of the Ring; it was unlikely they would be as stoic about it as the Rohirrim had been. How to start, though...
"There is some time yet to prepare," he began, "But the Enemy will come North."
"War?" Angrod interrupted. "Why would the Enemy risk..."
"He will come," Halbarad said tersely.
"What makes you so certain?" Angrod asked, his tone sharp, doubtful.
"All here know the tales of the Last Alliance," Halbarad started. "All here have also heard of Isildur's Bane."
Edrahil glanced at Mallor before leaning over to whisper something to Galion, Vëantur looked at Halbarad expectantly; Hatholdir looked as if he already realised what Halbarad was leading up to. From their sharp intakes of breath it was clear both Halmir and Borlas had definitely realised.
"Must you bore us with ancient history?" Mallor even yawned as he spoke.
"Ancient history?" Halbarad answered, regretting that he could not call the lord of Celonhad to order like an unruly recruit. He had hoped to prepare the Council, say more of their situation before having to mention the Ring. It would have to be Mallor who overthrew his plan, though at least the Councillor had given him an opening he could use. Even so, this was not how he had wanted to break this to the Councillors. "No, Isildur's Bane, the Ring of the Enemy, is back in Sauron's hand."
Mallor started to laugh, but fell silent as soon as he realised he was the only one. At first, the other Councillors merely sat in stunned silence, but all too soon they all jumped up and started asking questions, shouting over each other to be heard. Halbarad could barely make out who said what – How? – What happened? – How do you know? – and he had to shout for silence before he could be heard over the din.
"The Ring was lost in Anduin as Isildur attempted to escape the Orcs that attacked him and his men. It was found again many years later."
"By the Enemy?" Angrod asked.
"No, not then," Halbarad answered.
The room was silent.
"How did he get it?" Hatholdir spoke at last.
"The One Ring was first found in the Great River and taken into the Misty Mountains, where it was found seventy years ago by the hobbit who was involved in killing Smaug." The Councillors looked sceptical, but nodded at the mention of Smaug's death. Old Bilbo's part in that was a familiar story, even if it was not believed by all.
"Is that why we kept such close watch on the hobbits? The One Ring was in the Shire?" Borlas asked incredulously.
"Yes, it was," Halbarad replied.
"How long have you known about this?" Borlas asked next.
Before Halbarad could answer, Vëantur asked, "More importantly, how long did Aragorn know? For how long has this been kept from the Council?"
"Nigh on twenty years," Halbarad replied, bracing himself for the response.
"Twenty years? We were kept in the dark on such an important matter for twenty years?" Vëantur shook his head.
"And you? Did you know?" Edrahil asked.
"Not for certain, but yes, I did suspect," Halbarad admitted, not wanting to go into detail on how strong his suspicion had been.
"Had I known this earlier, I would have withheld my oath," Edrahil said bluntly. He clearly wanted to say more, but Galion interrupted him.
"You suspected, and kept quiet. What else was kept..."
"Secrecy was of the utmost importan..."
"Secrecy? The Enemy still found it. What went wr... Wait, the attack on Sarn Ford last year?" Galion asked.
"No, though that was part of the Enemy's search for the Ring," Halbarad said. "By then, the Ring had passed to a new bearer and he left the Shire just in time, ahead of the Ringwraiths. The Ringbearer met Aragorn in Bree and was guided to Rivendell by him." There were no interruptions now, and Halbarad went on quickly. "Master Elrond called a Council, where it was decided that the Ringbearer would continue to Mordor to attempt to destroy the Ring, with only a few companions for secrecy's sake, including Aragorn and Gandalf."
"Elrond sent the One Ring off in the hands of a hobbit?" Galion asked. "To Mordor? Madness! And Aragorn not only agreed to such a hare-brained plan, but accompanied him? We should have used the Ring. If Aragorn had taken it when he first found out, or if not he..."
"Used it?" Halbarad interrupted. "Aragorn knew better than to use the weapon of the Enemy. Even the Wise feared to do so." He would not think of what the Ring would have twisted Aragorn into, had he succumbed to its lure; it was bad enough that Gandalf...
"So instead, the Wise sent it back into the Enemy's hands. How did that help us?" Galion observed sourly.
"It certainly helped Master Elrond to rid himself of his precious daughter's unwanted suitor," Mallor interrupted with a sneer.
"Mallor!" Halbarad barely raised his voice, but his tone was enough to make the others in the room fall silent instantly.
Mallor, oblivious, went on. "If Rivendell..."
"Enough! Mallor, do not prove further that you will certainly never be counted among the Wise." Halbarad forced himself to unclench his fist. Much as he wanted to, he could not strike Mallor, not in the Council chamber. The charge was absurd enough that Mallor had done himself no favour by speaking, and in a way Halbarad was even glad of Mallor's remark, as it diverted the Council's attention from the Ring. After giving Mallor a long stare, Halbarad turned towards the others. "My lords, are there more questions?"
Hatholdir was the first who would meet Halbarad's eye. "Not at the moment; let us leave it at that Isildur's Bane is in Sauron's possession. If the Enemy indeed brings his war north, we have more urgent matters to discuss than a twenty-year old decision we can do naught about, or even a decision taken last year we can do naught about either." At that, the other Councillors, bar Mallor, nodded in reluctant agreement, and Hatholdir went on. "I take it you have given some thought already to our defence?"
"Yes," Halbarad said. "First, I agreed to alliances with both Gondor and Rohan. Rohan is seeking allies among the Elves in Wilderland also; for our part we will see that they are not attacked from the rear by Dunland. And as long as Gondor stands, the North will offer what help we can."
"What can we offer Gondor when we have barely enough men to defend Eriador?" asked Hatholdir.
"Goods," Halbarad said. "The Dwarves will not be able to trade to Wilderland, and Gondor has need of both raw iron and forged weapons. And if our harvest is good, we can also send grain south."
Hatholdir continued his questions. "How would we send goods south, and why send grain to Gondor? I doubt they have need of our harvest."
"The longer Gondor stands, the longer before we come under attack," Halbarad said. "Gondor has lost control of Anórien and its farmlands; and with the damage and disturbance from the war in the southern fiefs, the harvest there will be less than what is needed. How we can send goods south? That brings me to my second point." He paused briefly before going on. "Tharbad. There is much work that needs to be done there."
"Tharbad?" Hatholdir asked. "Not the mountains?"
"The passes are as well-defended as they can be, and until the weather in the mountains improves there can be no large attack there. Tharbad will not hold even a day against a large force seeking to cross the river." Nor were the Beornings likely to accept help from Eriador before their position was desperate, Halbarad added in thought.
"What do you have in mind?"
"Clear the stones of the bridge from the water. The river will be much harder to cross when it can no longer be forded, and once there is a clear channel, barges can be used to ferry goods across."
Hatholdir nodded in agreement as Halbarad waited. Of the other Councillors, Galion and Angrod were with Hatholdir, and Vëantur was clearly still considering the matter. Mallor sat sullenly in his seat, avoiding meeting anyone's gaze, and Halbarad suspected he would have walked out of the Council had he dared. Edrahil shook his head in denial.
"No," the Councillor said. "Any work at Tharbad will only serve to reveal us to the Enemy."
"We already are in the open after Bree," Borlas pointed out.
"Indeed. Why was it necessary to take open action there?" Edrahil asked, looking not just at Borlas, but at Halbarad and Halmir also.
"I want to know that as well," Galion said. "It is clear now why you Rangers protected the Shire so tightly, but surely we should no longer lose men needlessly in the west? We will be hard-pressed here soon enough if what you expect happens. Why should we risk losing men for Bree or the Shire?"
"Think you that because Arnor will not be restored, our duty to defend its people and its lands has ended? That we are no longer Dúnedain?" Angrod began. "Protecting these lands is our duty."
"No longer," Edrahil replied.
"Will you think then!" Hatholdir interrupted. "Losing Bree would cost us the Greenway down to Tharbad, Fornost would be cut off, and the Elves would lose access to the Havens and the coastal lands."
"The Elves," Edrahil snapped in response. "If it was not for the Elves, we would not be in this situation. And what aid do they offer us?"
"Without Rivendell's aid, Bree might have been lost," Halbarad stepped back into the discussion. "At the very least, we would have lost many more men. Rivendell is well aware that we either stand together or fall separately." He noticed that Borlas nodded in agreement. Support from Borlas? On this? That was surprising... or perhaps not. Despite Borlas' dislike of Rivendell's policies, his second was no fool, even if his brief alliance with Mallor suggested otherwise. "Also, the Angle remains hidden. All that the Bree-landers have learnt is the purpose of the Rangers and our duty of old."
"Perhaps," Edrahil conceded, "But there is one other matter on which I would question your actions."
"Why did you take no more than just the Grey Company south? Did you truly think it would be enough?"
Halbarad took a deep breath and held it long before letting it go again in a sigh, as he met the Councillor's gaze. "Had I taken two more companies, it would not have been enough." Not against the Nazgûl. "And withdrawing even another half company might have meant the loss of Bree or Tharbad." Halbarad would never forgive himself for not reaching Aragorn in time on the Pelennor, but on this point at least he did not need to seek blame.
A long silence fell, until Edrahil nodded sharply and Hatholdir spoke. "So, Tharbad. I second your plan."
The others followed suit, only Mallor remaining silent.
"I will talk to the Master Builder," Halbarad said.
Borlas stood up to speak, and Halbarad nodded at him. "Captain?"
"What about Rangers?" Borlas asked. "Open activity around Tharbad will draw attention."
"Half a company, for now," Halbarad said. If the men working on the ford guarded their own camp, it should be enough.
"For now," Borlas replied.
Edrahil stood to speak. "Will clearing a channel not also make it too easy for the Enemy to cross with boats?"
"Sink them in the middle of the river, and the barges that are used to ferry goods can be used to block the channel," Halmir said.
Borlas laughed. "Good thinking." Halbarad met his son's gaze and nodded his own approval.
"Is there anything else?" Hatholdir asked. "It has been a long day, and we all have much to think about."
Halbarad turned to the window. He was surprised to see that it was already close to dusk. "No, this is all."
"One more question," Vëantur said. "The Ring. How open can we be about that?"
"It need not be kept secret." Halbarad doubted that would be possible anyway. All he could hope was that there would be no panic.
At last, the Council was at an end. Halbarad waited while the Councillors filed out; he was certain they would have questions in the next few days, but for now it was over.
Halmir was waiting for him near the door, while Borlas had come over to Halbarad after the Councillors left.
"About the Tharbad company?" Borlas said. "With more men there, they will need a second lieutenant as well."
"Go on," Halbarad said. With a company and a half, having a second lieutenant did make sense, and he could easily guess who Borlas had in mind.
"It will be some time before the work can start, likely not until after midsummer." Borlas turned to look at Halmir. "I think he may be ready for that lieutenancy."
"If you think so, captain," Halbarad said. Borlas might be trying to mend his own standing after his brief alliance with Mallor, but it was a good idea even so, and would be good experience for Halmir.
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