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The Sword of Elendil: 24. The Servant of Mordor
Unwilling to leave his sweet dream, he groaned as he opened bleary eyes to see Halbarad's dirt-caked boots before his face in the dim light of early dawn. He turned over. "What is it?"
"He's gone again."
Jolted completely awake, Aragorn sat up. "What? How?"
"He walked, I guess." Halbarad's face was rigid with fury, his voice tight. "You said you would wake if he moved."
Dismayed, Aragorn threw off his cloak and rose in one swift movement. "A fine watch you keep."
Halbarad growled. "He's better than both of us. What do we do now? Chase after him again?"
A sick, hollow feeling gnawed at Aragorn's gut. "He may be ill and wandering. Or taken. Something is terribly wrong. What choice do we have but to see it through?"
"To our deaths, maybe," Halbarad said. He began to gather his things.
Aragorn stooped to gather his cloak and healer's kit, that had lay at his side through the night, but when he stood up, it was to see Beleg's swift form moving silently and gracefully into the clearing. "Good morning, young ones! Awake at last?"
Relief and rage warred in Aragorn's heart. "Where have you been?"
Beleg's fine mouth curved in an amused smile. He had shaved again, Aragorn noted with amazement. "Scouting ahead, of course. I found this knife. A sign of the enemy, I believe." He lifted up a silver dagger with a short, broad blade. "We must go that way."
Aragorn reached out for the weapon, but Beleg quickly sheaved it in his belt. "Your treatments have cured me, young healer. Have no worry."
Swallowing his fury, Aragorn scanned his vital face and vigorous figure, looking for any sign of illness or madness. ""You look very well, my friend."
"Indeed, I feel as if I were newly born today." His eyes and his smile picked up the light of the rising sun.
"Still, I would advise some caution, till we are sure you are quite fit."
Beleg laughed, a hearty, triumphant roll of bliss. "Oh, it's been some time since I felt this well. Why, I doubt you two young ones can keep pace with me. Come, we go to find Daeron. I believe this knife is a sign of where he may be."
As Beleg scattered the ashes of their fire, Halbarad beckoned to Aragorn and whispered in his ear. "The madness may yet grip him. I have heard of this: a man goes from despair to elation in mysterious ways. Beleg always was a man of strong feelings."
"Perhaps," Aragorn said. "We will continue to watch him. I do not know what else to do but to follow him. He knows this land better than we do, and a hunt for Daeron is our best course. Perhaps at last we will meet with the reinforcements from Thurnost."
Halbarad looked as worried and unsure as Aragorn felt. "Elladan and Elrohir expected to join us, too."
"I doubt my foster brothers will have finished their journey with their father," said Aragorn. "From their hints, I expected the journey would be a long one. They'll come when their duty is over."
Beleg turned abruptly toward them. His eyes sparkled like night stars. "The sons of Elrond will come?"
Surprised that he had heard their whispers, Aragorn gazed curiously at his shining face. "Yes, they plan to join our Orc hunt, as I believe I told you. But no Orc hunt will happen unless we've discovered their den."
"They are here. I saw them from Wolf's Head." Beleg pointed east. "That's the way we must go, and we will find Daeron too, that traitor."
"How do you know that? What sign does this knife give?"
"I know, that's all." He raised one elegant brow in challenge. "Perhaps you, too, will one day learn such things of the wild. Or you could say I dreamed it. Are you coming?"
Halbarad snorted, but strapped his pack to his back. His bow was strung and waiting. "Let's waste no more time."
With even greater care than usual, Aragorn fastened his sword belt around his waist and felt at least some relief to have Morchamion hanging ready at his side. As he took his place behind Halbarad and Beleg, he felt under his tunic for the red-and-black damasked knife that his great-grandmother had given him in memory of his great-grandfather Argonui. Somehow he felt he would soon have need of it.
They set off at the quickest pace that stealth would allow, halting only to eat scanty meals and traveling into the evening. When at last they stopped for the night, Aragorn and Halbarad dropped with weariness. Beleg laughed. "I said it would be so. I will keep watch so you children can get your rest."
Troubled but at a loss for any other course of action, Aragorn rolled into his cloak and slept. That night, when he from time to time turned restlessly, he would see Beleg standing straight and tall against the night stars, singing softly.
For two days they traveled through the hilly country, moving ever east. Aragorn continued to watch Beleg carefully, unsure if he feared madness or treachery. Once Beleg turned his bright eyes on Aragorn's face, and smiled. "Do you worry about me, young one?"
"Look to yourself. I do not need your help, and I have long traveled in this land."
So Aragorn tried to watch him more discretely, waiting for the seeming strength of Beleg's latest mood to collapse into dread or dreams. But he seemed never to weary or to waver in his pursuit of the trail. Halbarad stayed close at Aragorn's side. The rocky land of the mountains to the north began to give way to sparse woods, marked with meandering tracks. "Beasts," Beleg said.
"Or Orcs," Aragorn said.
But Beleg shook his head. "Not here." He pointed to the east at a crag of grey rock. "Daeron will be in the dell just over that ridge."
"How do you know?" asked Halbarad, his brows lifted in challenge.
"I can smell him," Beleg snapped.
Exchanging a glance with Aragorn, Halbarad said, "I will go first."
Beleg shrugged, and gave way to Halbarad's lead. They moved silently toward the crag and skirted it southward to a green, treed valley. Aragorn walked behind Beleg, watching him as carefully as the way ahead.
And there, round a fallen stump, in an open space amid the trees, Daeron knelt within a shallow pit. He seemed to be digging, a round, flat rock gripped in his hands. At the side of the ditch crouched Rodnor, his head bowed over a body shrouded in a bloody cloak.
Drawing Morchamion, Aragorn shouldered Beleg aside and strode into the clearing, Halbarad behind him with his arrow cocked and bow drawn. "Rodnor! Daeron! What's happened? Who has died?" Aragorn cried.
Rodnor lifted his head, his face pale and wretched. "Grandfather—dead. I tried—" Choking sobs swallowed his words.
Aragorn could not stop his strangled cry. "Hawk dead!" Halbarad groaned.
Daeron froze as he was, crouched in the grave, the rock half lifted in his waiting hands. Beleg's sword was pointed at his belly; as swift as a stag in flight Beleg had leaped past Aragorn and Halbarad. "Stand up, you traitor," he spat, his eyes gleaming fiercely.
"Stop, Beleg." commanded Aragorn. "I will give the orders here."
But Beleg did not lower his sword. Aragorn lifted Morchamion, and for a heartbeat all were still, waiting.
Daeron raised himself to his feet. He stared at Beleg unblinking, his face impassive, his blind eye twitching. He dropped the rock at his feet. "I am no traitor."
"What has happened here? Rodnor, speak!" Aragorn looked at the boy's anguished face, sure that here, at least, was someone whose word he could trust.
"Daeron tried to help us." Rodnor's voice sounded stunned and weak. "He tried to save my grandfather. Daeron killed the wolf, but he couldn't save my grandfather." Harsh sobs wracked his thin chest.
"Wolf?" snapped Beleg. "What wolf? I see none."
Daeron said, "I dragged the carcass away. It was no wild beast, killing for hunger. It was a hound of the Enemy."
"You have great knowledge of these matters, no doubt," mocked Beleg. "But I see at least you've fooled this boy with these tall tales." Beleg moved closer to Daeron, his swordpoint raised to the man's throat.
"Beleg, I order you to stop!" said Aragorn again, furious that the man would not obey him. "Halbarad will guard him. You and I will speak about this."
"Stay back, Aragorn," Beleg commanded, not moving an inch. "This traitor wants the blood of the Heir of Isildur."
Daeron lifted up his hands in surrender. He looked directly at Aragorn. "It's not true. I have come to hunt the Enemy."
"You deserted your post," said Aragorn. "The chieftain judged that cause for your execution."
"Túrin wouldn't listen," Daeron said quietly. "I saw them, the wolves. He wouldn't follow."
"You tell clever lies," Beleg said, his keen eyes glowing. "You deserve death."
"No," Aragorn said. "I won't judge so quickly. But we must bind him."
Beleg thrust his sword into the earth, and pulled a coarse rope from his pouch. "Cover him while I bind him," he said to Halbarad. Halbarad turned his questioning glance to Aragorn, who nodded curtly.
"I will not resist, but I ask to have my say." Daeron held out his hands to Beleg's rope.
"You deserve nothing," Beleg snarled as he pulled the knots tight.
"Those decisions are mine to make," Aragorn roared. "Rodnor will tell us what happened here."
Rodnor stood up slowly. "He helped us, I swear it. I would be dead too, if not for him."
Beleg seized hold of Daeron's bound arms, pulling them cruelly. "And what do you say, traitor? How have you beguiled this child?" And as Aragorn flung away his pack and his sword and leaped forward to grab Beleg, Daeron's eyes flared with challenge as he yanked his arms from his captor's grasp. But Beleg moved too fast: he swung his two fists into the man's face, and Daeron toppled.
Aragorn and Halbarad both jumped to seize Beleg, who struck out with his booted foot and kicked Halbarad to the ground. Aragorn roared with rage as he reached to grab Beleg with a wrestler's move. But Beleg slithered from his grasp and dropped to Daeron's side, putting his mouth to the unconscious man's ear as Aragorn grabbed him. Beleg's lips moved, and Daeron shuddered, like a sick man in convulsions.
Trembling with rage, Aragorn heaved Beleg to his feet. But the man only smiled, his eyes darkly gleaming. Fear seized Aragorn's very being at the triumph in his keen glance.
"What have you done?" he hissed.
"Why, merely spoken words of healing. I, too, know some Elvish tricks."
Aragorn growled, "Halbarad, watch him." Halbarad wrenched Beleg away from the ditch where Daeron lay. Aragorn crouched at Daeron's side. The man's hands were tightly bound across his belly, and a dark bruise was blossoming around his eyes—both the empty socket and the whole eye. At Aragorn's touch Daeron cried out and struggled in his bonds, but he did not regain consciousness.
Keeping one hand on Daeron's arm, Aragorn turned his head to stare at Beleg, whose right arm Halbarad held twisted behind his back. Rodnor stood nearby, trembling. "What did you do to him?"
"You saw. I hit him. He will be much more docile when he comes round."
"No," Aragorn snapped. "You did something to him, more than an unmanly punch of a bound man. What words did you speak?"
"Power far beyond yours, son of Arathorn."
With the speed of a striking snake Beleg whipped away from Halbarad, who fell backward with a grunt, and seized Rodnor where he stood in a daze.
The silver dagger gleaming in Beleg's hand pointed into Rodnor's side. The boy cried out as the man seized him by the throat.
Rising to his feet, Aragorn stared into Beleg's face and saw the gleaming light in his eyes flare up. He had seen that light before, but never in the eyes of a Man.
"Who are you?" He took one step closer.
"Stop where you are," Beleg commanded, and moved the dagger to Rodnor's throat. A thin trickle of blood edged down the boy's neck. His face was white and pinched, his eyes shadowed with blue circles of shock and fatigue.
Aragorn stopped, staring at the stranger before him, and intently and gratefully aware that Halbarad crouched close by, his arrow once more cocked in his drawn bow.
"You are not Beleg. Who are you?" Aragorn said again.
Halbarad stirred with unease. Beleg's eyes snapped to him. "Keep still," he snarled, "or the boy dies. Throw down your weapon."
Morchamion lay on the ground where Aragorn had flung it in the struggle. Conscious of the weight of Saelind's dagger inside his tunic, he lifted his hands to show that they were empty. But Halbarad trained his arrow at Beleg's breast.
Sneering, Beleg blocked his shot with Rodnor's body, and again dug the dagger into the boy's neck. "I don't want to kill him, but I will if you force me."
"Halbarad," Aragorn spit between clenched teeth. With a curse Halbarad thrust his weapons to the ground and raised his hands.
"You," Beleg nodded his chin at Halbarad, "lie on your belly over there, and lock your hands behind your head. If you move from there, the boy dies. Don't think you can outwit me: I am far stronger and quicker than you know even yet."
Halbarad shifted his eyes to Aragorn, who with a quick, sharp nod of his head, told him to obey. Halbarad rolled to the ground and, slowly, slowly, stretched out.
"Face down." Beleg ordered, probing Rodnor's neck with the dagger as the blood continued to drip. He kicked Halbarad where he lay, and locked eyes again with Aragorn. The flaring light seared Aragorn's mind. "Hold your hands out, so that the boy may bind them."
The blood dripping down his neck, Rodnor tied bonds over Aragorn's wrists with shaking hands.
The silver dagger in Beleg's forceful grip was beautiful, polished and graceful. Elven make, Aragorn realized with horror. An Elvish wight has taken Beleg.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"On the ground," the stranger ordered as he kicked Aragorn's legs. Aragorn fell clumsily to his knees.
The stranger bound Rodnor's hands, and kicked Halbarad yet again before he bound his hands behind his back. Halbarad groaned, and then lay as if dead.
Fingering the gleaming edge of the dagger in his powerful hands, he who had been Beleg stood over Aragorn where he knelt, panting, in the dust. Raising his head, Aragorn stared into the stranger's eyes and snarled, "Cotumo."
The stranger laughed. "For many years I have hunted your kind and sought to wrest this land from your hands. Yes, I am your enemy, son of Arathorn. Who am I, you ask? I have had many names and many forms. Call me Drauchir, a name I once bore many years ago in this very land."
"Lord of wolves," Aragorn said slowly. "That was the name of the sorcerer of Rhudaur."
"Once I was called that," Drauchir answered. "In the war where almost we shattered what was left of your sorry race. Now I am here to finish the job."
Aragorn began to shake as the truth sank into his heart. "You are the spirit of an Elf, given to the service of Sauron," he whispered.
"Mairon," the stranger spat. "Do not speak of what you cannot understand. I was born into a body of the master race of Elves, the Noldor. The life of my fëa spans three ages of this world, although it has lived in many bodies—even within the fierce body of a wolf. But when an Elf cannot be found, I prefer the body of a Dúnadan. This one suits me well enough, but yours would be even better."
The light in his eyes flared yet again, and a slow smile spread over his face. "Ah yes," he said softly. "Such sweet revenge. Not only to destroy the line of Isildur, my master's dearest wish, but to use the body of Elrond's foster son to wipe that half-breed and his kind from Middle-earth. For who would prevent Estel the beloved from entering the Last Homely House?"
A fear so deep and cold seized Aragorn that his head spun. But he stared without blinking into the stranger's face. "That will be harder than you think. Elrond will defeat you. He will return Beleg to his body."
"No, little Dúnadan," Drauchir laughed. "The spirit you call Beleg is beyond the circles of the world, in that void where the impotent ghosts of mortal Men go after their short, miserable strut in this world. I forced him from his body as it lay fevered and weak from the wolf's bite. Beleg died while you lay in your weak mortal's sleep."
With a sick lurch in the pit of his belly Aragorn tried to remember everything that Elrond had ever taught him about these fearful beings, houseless Elves who force a spirit from its rightful body and use it as a puppeteer uses a marionette.
Drauchir's smile broadened. "I see you realize I speak the truth. For many of your years I hid in the corners of Beleg's mind, whispering commands to his weak will. At last it is time to finish what was started long ago in Mirkwood. Yes, that's right. My power entered him when he took the blade meant for your father. Such a noble deed! It allowed me to achieve even greater ends: the deaths of two of the spawn of the wretched Isildur. And yet one more so close."
Aragorn clenched his fists in their tight bonds. "You killed my father and my grandfather."
"It was not my arm that dealt the blow, but my power called to the Trolls and the Orcs who saw it done," Drauchir said, and again his face broadened in a delighted smile. "Now my master and I will destroy what remains of your broken people. As for this—" He heaved the scabbard bearing Narsil from Aragorn's pack. "This useless scrap will be melted in the fires of Mount Doom."
He seized the hilt, drew the broken sword and held it aloft. His face twisted in disgust. Then, swift as a snake, he flashed the broken blade toward Aragorn's chest, slit his tunic with the lethally sharp edge, and raised up the silver chain bearing the Ring of Barahir. Hatred burned in his eyes. "This, too, we will destroy."
Aragorn did not move as the blade hovered near his throat. "I see by your lachenn eyes that you were born in Valinor under the light of the Two Trees. How can you serve the Enemy?"
Drauchir tickled Aragorn's neck with the broken end of Narsil. "Is not Melkor a Vala, the most powerful of all? And my master Annatar is the greatest of the Maiar. The Valar! They abandoned you and your kind long ago and called down the wrath of the One to destroy you. If it comforts you, then consider that I but carry out their will."
He drew back and dropped the broken blade into the dust. "Greatest among the crimes of the Valar is the Half-Elven mongrels. Children of Lúthien," he sneered. "Kings of Númenor—what a farce! Look at you, covered with dirt and sweat like a peasant!"
Aragorn spat at Drauchir's feet. "No death would be too cruel for such as you."
Drauchir laughed. "Ah, but you cannot kill me, little Dúnadan. You can kill this body, but my fëa will only find a new one. Your mind is too weak to imagine the extent of my power."
He plucked the blade that had once been Beleg's from its stand in the earth and strode to Daeron's prostrate body. Aragorn closed his eyes, sure that he meant to kill the unconscious man. But the mad Elf's voice rang out with a command in the High Elven tongue: "Awake, and serve your master!"
Aragorn opened his eyes and gazed without hope at the sorcerer standing over his puppet victim. Daeron stirred; his one good eye was dark, his face grim. "I am ready to serve," he uttered hoarsely. "Command me."
Drauchir sliced the bonds from Daeron's hands. "We will mark these men." His voice was stern and not be disobeyed. Daeron sat up and brushed the cut ropes from his hands.
"He is first," said Drauchir, pointing to Halbarad, stretched and tied on the ground. "He, too, will make a good servant. Bring him to me." He fingered the edge of the silver dagger.
Aragorn wanted to roar with rage and frustration, but he kept himself still, watching for any opportunity to fight. He would die before he would allow himself or his companions to become the creatures of this Lord of Wolves. If only he could reach his one last weapon: the black and red dagger that nestled against his body. He remembered Saelind's sweet, old face as she said, "My heart tells me that one day it will save your life."
He watched as Daeron walked as if in his sleep toward Halbarad's long, lean form. Halbarad began to shout and writhe.
"Keep still, or I will kill the boy," hissed Drauchir, his silver-handled dagger again pressed to Rodnor's side.
Like a sleepwalker Daeron bent over and pulled Halbarad to his knees, and then to his feet—and the two Rangers leaped upon Drauchir, Daeron striking like a bird of prey. Halbarad flew to Aragorn and with two swift strokes, cut him from his bonds.
Aragorn pulled Saelind's dagger from inside his tunic and whirled to kill.
But Drauchir was faster: Rodnor screamed as the blade sliced into his side.
As he threw his weight against the enemy, Aragorn aimed the dagger at his bare throat. Drauchir fell over, Aragorn on top of him, but Drauchir still bore his own weapon and slashed at Aragorn's face. He knew, rather than felt, the cut and the blood in his beard. Standing above them, Halbarad kicked Drauchir repeatedly in the trunk and head, and Daeron stomped on his arm until with a sickening crunch the bone broke.
Drauchir struggled fiercely against Aragorn with an inhuman strength. Almost he threw Aragorn off, but as Halbarad and Daeron kicked the man's head and body, Aragorn twisted in a wrestler's move and drove the dagger into the pit of his broken arm.
"Bind his legs!" he shouted, holding the man down with all of his weight and skill. Halbarad trussed up Drauchir's legs like a fly in a spider's web, kicked him onto his side and bound his hands behind his back.
"So, little Dúnadan, you win this bout," Drauchir said. His eyes cut to Daeron, who flinched. "How did you escape my power, you weakling?"
"I am no traitor," Daeron said.
"You turned from riches and reward beyond your dreams, even the woman you desire. I would have given her to you."
Aragorn growled and would have slashed the man's throat then and there, but Halbarad pulled him back. Daeron only stared.
"You will die soon enough, lord of wolves," Aragorn said. "But first you will talk. What is this silver knife? What have you done to the boy?"
"I marked him with a power beyond your ability to heal. He will die, or he will turn to my will."
Aragorn spat at him. He turned to Daeron and Halbarad. "Keep him at weapon's point. I must see to Rodnor."
He knelt beside Rodnor. His breathing was shallow but steady, his face white and sickly, blood soaking his jerkin. His eyes flickered with agony as Aragorn stripped his jerkin and shirt and softly wiped the blood away from the wound. To his relief, it was not deep, just long and bloody: with good tending it should heal, leaving only a scar. Gently he washed the cut with water from his waterskin, and bound a poultice to Rodnor's side to keep the wound clean and dry and lessen pain. He stroked Rodnor's head and murmured words of comfort.
"How is he?" Halbarad asked.
"He's in no danger of death from the cut itself," Aragorn said. "But this is no ordinary wound. Remember my own injury, and the unexplained fever and dreams that followed? That had to have been a mark of Drauchir's power."
He rose and looked down at the creature where he lay. He knew of only one way to lessen the deadly power, and steeled himself to do the deed he knew he must. He picked up Morchamion in its scabbard from the ground where he had flung it and drew the long blade. He fixed his eyes on the Elf's glittering stare as he said with a calm that he did not feel, "You will die now."
"You can kill this body, but your triumph will be short," snarled the mad Elf. "I have already called my wolves, and they will come, and one will give up his body to me, and we will find you and kill you all. And your spirit will leave the world stained with the blood of your father's friend, son of Arathorn son of Arador."
"Maybe so," Aragorn said. "But without this body you will be helpless until your minions come, and you will kill, at least for a while, no more of my people."
He motioned to Halbarad to haul Drauchir to his knees. He wished fervently that he could use Narsil to end the man's life, but the short, broken blade would not allow a clean sweep through the neck. Slowly he raised Morchamion gripped in his two fists. Forgive me, my fathers both, the one who gave me life and the one who raised me, for what I will do with this sword given in honor and love. He stood before the man crouched on the ground. Without fear Drauchir stared into Aragorn's eyes, a mocking smile covering his face.
"As the chieftain of the Dúnedain and the Heir of Isildur," Aragorn said, "for the crimes you have committed against my people this long age and the murders of my father and grandfather, I pronounce sentence of death upon you."
Drauchir laughed. And he laughed still as Morchamion sliced into his neck, cleaving his head from his body. Blood spattered Aragorn's front as the shuddering, headless body slumped over and the head rolled into the dirt.
Aragorn carefully wiped the blood from Morchamion and sheathed it. Then he raised his eyes to his companions, who stood silent, shocked and grieving. "Make ready to leave here at once."
"Abandon their bodies as carrion? Leave Hawk to the crows?" Halbarad's face was dark with pain.
"We have no choice," said Aragorn harshly. "The wolves are summoned. I urge you to believe this threat is real. Rodnor is wounded and weak and could be taken over by his mad fëa."
Halbarad shifted on his feet, looking around as if an armed enemy lurked behind him. "He is still here then."
"Oh yes," Aragorn nodded. "He is still here. But powerless for now with no body to carry his evil will. Rodnor is at great risk."
"You're wounded yourself, Aragorn. He struck you, too."
Aragorn laid a hand to the matted blood in his beard and felt the stinging cut on his jaw. "Yes, but it is slight. It won't slow me down. Daeron—"
"I am no traitor," Daeron said. Tears coursed through the dirt on his face. "I am a true Dúnadan."
"I know," Aragorn said. "You saved our lives. We will talk more later. But now, my friends, we must go."
"I know a place," Daeron said, "a safe hideout. We can make for there, and decide later where to move on. It's across the river, toward the mountains, and the water will help throw off our trail."
Aragorn nodded. "Halbarad, can you carry Rodnor? He will be in pain, but we must move him anyway."
"Yes, if Daeron can carry my pack."
Daeron was already gathering their gear.
Aragorn stooped and grasped the broken hilt of Narsil where Drauchir had thrown it in a patch of mud. Carefully he wiped it clean and returned it to the old scabbard. Then he wrapped his hand in a cloth and picked up the squat, leaf-bladed silver dagger that Drauchir had borne. Its graceful, simple lines belied its dark arts. "I will bring this to Elrond. He will know what must be done."
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