The Angle: Slashverse Arc
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Semper Fidelis: 3. Found Wanting
But the world would not remain outside the door, and as memory faded, Eledhril sighed, then pressed a kiss to the top of Halbarad's head, feeling his lover stir against him, hearing the sudden, sharp intake of breath, the little moan as the other shook off sleep. Eledhril dragged numbed fingers through coarse hair. "Hush," he murmured.
"'Ledhril," the other croaked, words sleep-slurred and muffled somewhat against Eledhril's chest. "Hour 's it?"
"Late afternoon. We fell asleep." At that, Halbarad cringed, and Eledhril bit his lip as he stroked the other's back soothingly.
His efforts were in vain, however, as Halbarad drew away, breaking free of his embrace to sit up. Grimacing slightly as blood began to flow back into his arm, Eledhril followed suit. A profound silence settled as they faced each other over naught but soiled sheets, and Eledhril found himself searching Halbarad's face, seeking he knew not what precisely but certain that he did not see it, whatever it might be. Halbarad, after a moment, lowered his eyes, and to Eledhril's surprise, he reached out and ran fingers gently up Eledhril's thigh. But his expression was dark, and Eledhril sucked in a breath as questing fingertips probed a sore spot. Halbarad cursed softly under his breath, after which there seemed little more to say.
Wordlessly, then, they rose, falling thoughtlessly into old habits. As Eledhril went first for the wash basin, Halbarad began collecting scattered clothing, piling Eledhril's to one side and his own to the other, careful to avoid the mess in the middle of the bed. Eledhril heard the chamber pot scrape against the floor, and sighed softly as he considered what excuses he might make for washing their sheets. At length, he surrendered his place to Halbarad, and climbed back into his clothes. Mayhap if he claimed he had wanted to be rid of the scent of retting, as those clothes remained still in the basket, though he had not as yet complained...
When at last, both had dressed, they stood and faced each other as they had many a time before and tugged at each other's collars or belts, adjusted the hang of tunics, and neatened errant strands of hair. And when they had done, still it seemed they mirrored each other, neither able to muster aught of expression, though they needed none to know what turmoil lurked behind their masks. Finally, though, Halbarad broke the leaden silence. "Best you see to the sheets while there is still daylight," he said.
"Aye. Thankfully, Thorondis should not return for a time still, or mayhap not at all tonight."
"Mm." They stared at each other a moment longer, guilt thick as glass between them, and then Halbarad turned to leave. But just as he reached the door, Eledhril called quietly to him.
"Yes?" The other paused, not quite glancing back over his shoulder.
A dozen things chased themselves through Eledhril's mind, but in the end, he said only, "This was not mercy."
Halbarad hesitated. His lips parted slightly, and for a moment, he seemed on the verge of speaking. But in the end, he said naught, only nodded, once and sharply, and then left quickly, shutting the door behind him.
Afterwards, Eledhril stood there leaning against the bed, waiting until all was quiet without and listening to the mocking voice of conscience that whispered: In the bed you made, in the bed you made... you know what you must do. Aye, he knew, and cursing long and bitterly, Eledhril began stripping the bedsheets.
Smoke curled upwards from the pipebowl towards the rafters, and from his seat at the table before the hearth, Halbarad watched it rise. Breathing deeply, he then sent a stream of it chasing through recoiling tendrils, and, anchored by the silence of an empty house, let his thoughts drift whither they would. He had gone on another walk that evening. Had anyone seen him, they would have thought he had gone hunting roe deer. But his quarry, while not so swift as the deer, had still required a cautious approach. Unbeknownst to Eledhril, he had trailed after him to the river, there to keep watch while Eledhril had scrubbed not only his sheets, but the children's and seen to the laundry in general. None had disturbed him or even ventured near, which was a relief. Most were hovering even now about either Narwen or her husband, waiting for news, and so Eledhril had completed his errand and returned largely unheeded by any but the gate watch. If only Thorondis found nothing to rouse her suspicions, he and Eledhril might never be questioned.
I should be glad of that, Halbarad thought, staring at the smoke, seeing in its writhing the unconscious imitation of the dance of lovers. Eledhril was a canny soul; he might well manage to cover up–literally–all evidence, and both of them were painfully good actors at need before all others. He ought to be glad, he ought to be grateful that he might well escape the fate meted out to adulterers. He ought, he reflected with bitter irony, to be many things–a husband, a father, an honest man (or no more dishonest than any other Ranger), faithful before the law and the eyes of all men–but 'ought' had never ruled his life so thoroughly as the simple fact of his desires. Certainly, 'ought' had not ruled him today.
Eledhril thought to turn me from Aragorn, and mayhap he has succeeded, he brooded. Ill deeds taint their object, and so perhaps a kiss from Aragorn would taste as ashes in my mouth. Then again, it might not, and Halbarad leaned his head in his hands, cursing his own stupidity and weakness in this affair. For tainted or no, Eledhril's mouth tastes as sweet to me as ever, and I would not now surrender him! Indeed, there was a part of him that would guard against Thorondis's discovery of those bruises not out of fear so much as out of sheer jealousy. They were his marks, his 'ring', the seal that he had laid claim to Eledhril, and he did not wish now to relinquish that claim.
Curse it all, better if it had been five minutes in a corner and a kiss farewell, Halbarad thought, angrily. Better, for if that had been all that Eledhril had been able to give, then it would truly have meant nothing, and that might well have killed desire. For though he might accept such from others in a moment of weakness, pride and memory could not have borne it from Eledhril. But whatever else he might be, Eledhril was more honest than not. "This was not mercy," he had said. Nay, love, it was not, Halbarad thought, and sighed. And still there is Aragorn...
A soft rap on the door just then startled him, for he had expected no one save perhaps his sister and mother, if Narwen's babe were delivered that night. But Dírlas and Marweth would have no need to beg entry to their own home. Uneasily he stared, half hoping that the other would leave, but his unseen guest knocked again, and more insistently. It might be one of the watch, come to tell of some troubling sighting, he reminded himself. Whatever he felt, for the moment he had still duty, and so, setting the pipe down in its holder on the table, he rose to go and answer the summons. However, it was not a guard who stood there in the doorway. A cold, hard knot of dread settled in his stomach, but in the end, it was resignation, not surprise that filled the hollow of his chest.
For Aragorn it was who stood upon the threshold, manifestly unhappy, and there was naught of friendship in the other's eyes or bearing. Tonight, he was the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, Lord of the Angle, Captain of the Rangers, Isildur's Heir, and the authority of the fistful of other titles with which he was invested hung like a mantle about him. There could be but one purpose for his coming. It seems I have not escaped in the end at all, Halbarad thought numbly, and wondered whether Eledhril had survived the revelation. Or was that foolish? Eledhril, after all, was Thorondis's husband, and she would surely wish to keep what was hers. He, on the other hand...
Barely had he made way than Aragorn brushed past him, with a terse "Bar the door" for greeting. At least that gave him an excuse to turn away, a chance to collect himself and Halbarad took it. Settling the beam in its brackets, he stood there, gripping it tightly as in his mind's eye, the line of faces stretched out–all the young men he had taken to task in Aragorn's stead over the years for lesser crimes than this. Tradition had it that a lad should always look his captain in the eye if he would not be a coward or a child, and he had always demanded such of any man facing judgment. Unwilling to add hypocrisy to the list of his failings, Halbarad therefore gathered the shreds of his dignity and turned to face Aragorn.
Aragorn, however, stood staring into the fire laid in the hearth, arms folded across his chest, seeming quite unconcerned with any effort on Halbarad's part at propriety. That cut, and Halbarad winced inwardly as, without so much as glancing at him, Aragorn ordered sharply, "Approach."
When he had done so, Aragorn at last turned and looked him coolly up and down, yet still without meeting Halbarad's eyes. The knot in his stomach became nausea, and Halbarad swallowed hard against it. Have I fallen so far in his esteem? To which conscience sneered: Need you ask? Of course he had; he could scarcely fall further, short of murder or betrayal. Of course Aragorn would be disgusted by him, would not wish to dignify him with even the respect one owed from one man to another, captain to erring commander–after all, even the newest starred Ranger knew not to lay a hand on one married, and especially never to accept a touch from such a one if there were aught to suggest affection in it.
Aragorn clasped his hands behind his back then, as he stepped in uncomfortably close, making Halbarad's skin crawl. "I will not repeat all that I have heard tonight of you and Eledhril, nor do I wish to hear your excuse for betraying a woman who has been as your sister for nearly as many years as we have known each other," he said, in a clipped tone of voice, and Halbarad cringed inwardly. "I do wish an answer, however, lieutenant. I wish to know how it is that I chose so unwisely when I trusted you to keep discipline here and elsewhere in my stead, for clearly you will not even master yourself. Can you explain that singular failure of judgment to me?"
"Could I have been deceived as to your honesty?"
"You have not done this before?"
"No, sir." Aragorn grunted at that, as if surprised, and Halbarad fought to prevent a wince from breaking through the blank-faced mask he wore.
"I hope, then, that you did not presume to think that friendship would make me overlook this?"
"Then did you forget the penalties for bringing the Road back to the Angle to break a marriage?"
"What should I do with you, then, if you know them so well?"
A Ranger could be cast out of that company and confined to the Angle, there to endure the shame and scorn of all, denied the dignity of a trade and forced to do work as if a lifelong apprentice. Modig's thin, hopeless face flashed before his eyes, and Halbarad tasted bile on his tongue. No... Which left only the other choice, for discipline was harsh in the North, which had neither the patience for nor the luxury of extravagant variation.
"You should ask me to take a walk with you, Captain." A long walk, away from the sight of all others save the necessary witnesses, whence only Aragorn and those witnesses would return.
"And do you believe that you could stand against me?" For it was tradition to give the condemned one chance to defend himself–it was a doomed enterprise from the start, but there was a certain comfort to be taken in the idea of dying on one's feet as opposed to one's knees.
"But you wish to?"
That was not a question he had expected, and Halbarad blinked, momentarily at a loss, though the answer was hardly one in need of careful consideration. But Aragorn's expression betrayed nothing of his expectations, and so Halbarad said only, "No."
That caught Aragorn's attention, and Halbarad found himself lanced by the other's regard. "No?" Halbarad opened his mouth to speak, but for some reason, it seemed the words would not come, and so he simply shook his head.
Aragorn stared at him, eyes narrowing slightly, as if in surprise. At last, however, Aragorn grunted softly and looked away, and as he did so, his whole demeanor changed. There was frustration rather than outrage in the tight set of his jaw as he let a breath hiss out through his teeth, and something akin to disappointment seemed to drape him, much to Halbarad's confusion.
"I would have preferred to hear, 'yes,'" he said gruffly.
"Then, if you wish it, 'yes.'"
At that, Aragorn shook his head in irritation. "Stand easy." And when Halbarad hesitated, the other snapped, "I said, stand easy!" Which made it rather difficult to do so, but Halbarad attempted it. Aragorn rubbed a finger just over his brow, as if in some perplexity, or perhaps even a certain discomfort, then sighed softly as he folded his arms across his chest once more. After a time, he began again: "When I spoke with Eledhril–"
"Will he be confined here?" Halbarad broke in, needing to know.
"No." So he would take that walk as well... "He will stand watch tonight, and for the next two following it. On the third day, he will leave with a company bound for Bree."
"What?" Aragorn merely raised a brow at his uncomprehending expression. "But Thorondis–" Halbarad protested, and then paused suddenly. Thorondis was not a woman to suffer another to wrong her, and certainly she would not trust Eledhril beyond the walls of the Angle if she knew... If she knew... which can mean only... Understanding dawned suddenly, and Aragorn smiled humorlessly to see it.
"Aye, it was Eledhril who betrayed you both in a fit of conscience. Or perhaps it was concern that he would not be able to hide the... 'evidence'... you left with him. Whatever his reasons, the affair is now in my hands." Halbarad stared at him for a long moment, and without quite knowing how, found himself suddenly leaning against the table. She does not know. It was Eledhril... The floorboards creaked. Shaking his head sharply to clear his mind, Halbarad glanced up to see Aragorn once more standing close before him, expression unreadable.
"You will not tell her?" A shake of the head, as Halbarad struggled with his own incredulity. "Why? 'Tis no question of discernment, but a simple confession. We deserve–"
"Oh aye," Aragorn agreed, cutting him off. "You deserve every moment of agony that comes of this. You have earned no less. It would be mercy to ask you to take that walk with me tonight. It would be only just to denounce you in the square before all, and allow the town its scorn. You deserve both, and not in that order." There was no uncertainty in that pronouncement, and Halbarad felt ill all over again in the face of such complete condemnation from Aragorn.
"Then why will you not do as the law commands?" he asked.
"Why, indeed," Aragorn sighed, and suddenly there was that discomfort again as he looked away, seeming to consider his words. After a moment, he said quietly, "Eledhril was quite eloquent in his defense of you." A pause, then: "Often mistaken, and more passionate than reasonable, but eloquent. And in one thing he was undoubtedly correct: were it not for me, this would not have happened. Ah!" A raised hand forestalled Halbarad ere he could do more than open his mouth to reply. "He is correct, if perhaps not in the way that he meant it.
"For although I would have preferred that you or he had spoken sooner of this to me, I also saw you go step by step down that path, from Aescing to Eledhril's arms. As your friend, I had wanted to trust you, and I did; but as your captain, I had no right to trust you, for I cannot risk losing any who can serve so well. Yet the captain who judges and the friend who would remain silent are not separate in me–thus I ought to slay you without heat, as justice requires, but friendship demands a quarrel, and admittedly is wroth that you will not give me one." He paused a moment while Halbarad digested that, then concluded, "And so Eledhril is right in the main, if wrong in the matter when he claims that I am not without blame in this affair. Had I been more your captain than your friend, this would not have happened, for you would have had the breadth of Eriador between the two of you. Rest assured, it shall be so in the future."
"Distance shall change nothing of my affections," Halbarad replied softly.
"I know," Aragorn said, and looked him squarely in the eyes then, 'til Halbarad could not bear it and bowed his head. There followed an uncomfortable silence, 'til at last, Aragorn asked quietly, "I trust that I shall not need to speak of this matter, or any like it, again?"
"You understand that if Thorondis or any other should, despite my efforts, discover what you and Eledhril have done, then the sentence falls?"
"And do you wish it to fall?" Aragorn asked, pinning Halbarad with his stare.
Do I wish it? Did he wish to take that walk in the woods and leave Aragorn to deliver his star to his mother and sister afterwards, to say nothing of telling Eledhril? His own words came back to him then: I am not death-wished in this matter! "No. No, I do not."
"Good," Aragorn replied, softly, seeming relieved, and laid a hand on Halbarad's shoulder, as if by way of comfort or encouragement. "Then I shall expect to see you early tomorrow."
"Aye." And on impulse, just as Aragorn made as if to leave, Halbarad reached up quickly and covered that hand with one of his own. Close as they were, Halbarad could very easily have laid his head on Aragorn's shoulder, and nerves tingled as he closed his eyes against sudden and nearly suffocating, grieving desire. I suppose now I know whether Eledhril succeeded or not! There was nothing to say–or else there was too much, and as ever, the words caught in his throat ere ever they reached his mouth.
After a time, he felt Aragorn's hand on his shoulder tighten, kneading gently, ere the other murmured, "I am sorry, Halbarad." Halbarad nodded then, loosening his grip, and after a brief hesitation, he felt Aragorn's fingers slip through his. He counted footsteps to the door, listened as wood scraped... "Good night," Aragorn said quietly, then the door shut behind him and he was gone. Folding his arms across his chest convulsively, Halbarad breathed in deeply, trying to settle himself. But he could not, and after awhile, he abandoned the effort.
With a sigh, he took up the pipe again, but rather than bringing it to his lips, he simply turned it about in his hands restlessly, thinking. Of Thorondis. Of Eledhril. Of Aragorn and (reluctantly) of Arwen. Of silver stars and the men who wore them. Of the children he would never have. Of Modig. I am sorry, Halbarad. It would have been disingenuous to ask for what: 'What do you want?' Eledhril had asked him, awaiting an answer already known to Aragorn: Everything. It would be a long road ere he earned that apology, and though he had to believe that he was equal to the task of walking it, tonight he did not have it in him to face it. Mayhap he would not have it tomorrow or the next day, or next year, but there was little point in looking so far ahead. Look to tomorrow, he told himself, as he emptied his pipe into the hearth, then set it back in its holder. Look to tomorrow, for that shall be task enough for you.
With that in mind, a very weary Halbarad went to bed.
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