Many Guises and Many Names
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Where the Stars are Strange: 3. Nightfall
Evening ended suddenly, in a blaze of ruddy light that painted the desert rose where deep purple shadows lay not. But the instant the sun passed over the rim of the world, darkness fell, swift and abrupt as the headsman's axe. Indirkan, accustomed to the swift nightfall, was little troubled by it, wandering forlornly in his own thoughts. I should escape, he thought, I should try now to force my way past, for my enemy has not the strength to stay me I think. Honor demands that I try at least! And yet Indirkan sat slouched in the cave beside the injured man, finding it easier to let time drag him along its deadly path than resist it with action of his own. Still, he could not forebear to say, with a quick glance at the other, "My father will search for me. I doubt not that he has already begun."
Khordan shrugged minutely. As daylight had waned slowly away and their silent impasse endured, his movements had grown fewer and more restrained as pain and loss of blood took their toll. His breathing had grown more shallow and labored, and it seemed to take more of an effort for him to remain alert. Still he endured, with a stoic fortitude that astonished Indirkan. "Let them search! If they find you, I wish you well of your life and your fortunes." The Haradrim raised a brow at that, wondering if that were sarcasm or simply bitter exhaustion that had not strength enough for tact. He cannot last forever thus. 'Tis still warm, yet he shivers beneath his cloak: that wound needs more tending than he can give. Indirkan pursed his lips, considering the stranger once more. Anger still stirred at sight or thought of him, yet despite his bitter resentment, Indirkan found that oddly, he trusted the other, for there was a quality to Khordan that bespoke a fundamental honesty in spite of his faithlessness. That was perhaps what kept him here, in company he ought to scorn. And why, as he gazed balefully at the other, he asked in spite of his anger, "How did you know, Khordan?"
After a deliberate silence, Khordan replied, "By your feel, I suppose. One recognizes kinship from afar."
"Kinship! Bad blood, I say!" A pause. "What if I were to go now and find my father?"
"Do as you please, it little concerns me." Khordan's tone fought for resignation, but failed, and Indirkan smiled in the darkness. The other sounded rather disgusted for the most part, but there was something else there that he could not identify with surety. Weariness, yes, and a wishfulness . As if he wills only the end of this trial and hopes that I might end it for him.
"Truly?" he challenged.
"Nay," the other replied after a moment. "Not truly. But does it matter? You will not leave. Or if you do, you will not tell."
"How do you know that? I could cry my tale in the streets and be accounted a hero for uncovering a traitor."
In the darkness, there was the sound of fabric rustling, and then a sharp scratch as a point of light flared. Khordan held a match and the reddish light cast dancing shadows upon their faces as the stranger leveled that penetrating stare at him once more. "I know," said the other, and this time there was no room for doubt, "because you value your honor too much to purchase it." Before the gravity of the other's stare, Indirkan cast down his eyes, swallowing hard.
"And how come you to say that so quickly of me? Of one who is a traitor little known to you?" When Khordan did not answer immediately, he pressed on, knowing not precisely what drove him, but unable to stop. "That wound needs to be treated. If you trust me so, then if I offer to help you, will you accept?" It was a challenge, though for a moment Indirkan was uncertain whom he challenged, himself or Khordan.
Aragorn's mouth tightened, caught suddenly upon the barb of his own belief. How far does my trust extend? Reason said he could not afford to surrender himself to the other's mercy; equally, he knew very well that there would come a point in the night beyond which he could no longer control this 'encounter.' It would be simple to bow to inevitability, to accede simply because he had no choice. But something in him resisted that course, seeking to snatch a decision out of fate's greedy jaws. It was unreasonable, perhaps, as were many of his choices of late. Indeed, since his departure from Gondor, it seemed many of his actions had grown out of motives based in obscurity, explicable only by appeal to intuition. Now, though, even intuition was confused and he was left with little more than a visceral faith in this lad's honesty that refused to yield up any clues as to its origin. So in the end, I must decide not whether I trust Indirkan, but whether I trust my own judgment! Immediately, all the doubts reared up, attached to various names, titles, and personalities, all worn and discarded like threadbare clothing, and they tormented him with the promise of certainty if only he would choose one, become the mask once more. Thorongil would have an answer by now, but alas, I know too well how to keep a secret, for this construct of my own crafting will not yield to my inquiries. Aragorn wanted to laugh at the schisms within his own mind, but hissed sharply instead as pain stabbed at him, and closed his eyes. This is madness! The thousand and one different ways that puzzlement draped a man's face leered back at him in response, and he gritted his teeth, thoroughly disgusted with himself. I chose this fate because duty demanded, he reminded himself. I may loathe it, but it is my business to wear the disguise appropriate to the moment. And though I be weary to death of this task, still there remains pride to satisfy. Shall I fail for lack of enthusiasm? No!
But words did not help calm his spirit, or ease his fevered self-recrimination, and bits and fragments of the last three years in Harad and Rhûn drifted through his mind without the force to push him to one side or the other of acceptance. Enough! He drew a breath, and had to suppress a wince as he raised his eyes once more to Indirkan's. Look at him! What does my heart say? The match was burning swiftly, but ere it sputtered, he nodded, sharply, once.
Indirkan blinked, taken aback, for he had not, he realized, expected Khordan to accept. And now that he has, do I commit my first perjury, and attack him under the guise of truce? It was his turn now, to fumble for light, and when he had dropped a match into the lamp-plate he carried, he stared at Khordan a long moment. And then, taking a deep breath, he moved cautiously to the other's side. When he was well within arm's reach, his eyes darted to the dagger still sheathed at Khordan's belt. I could kill him now, Indirkan thought. It would not be difficult, not when he knows as well as I do that he has not the strength to last in a struggle. Once again, he tasted the anger and fear that attached to this enigmatic stranger, and felt his palms itch. Nevertheless, he moved very carefully, and paused ere he touched the hilt of that knife, but Khordan did not twitch, only watched him without expression as he drew the blade and touched it to his chest. How simple it is to take a man's life!
Aragorn did not know what power allowed him to remain absolutely still as Indirkan drew his own dagger very deliberately down the front of his shirt, parting the fabric but leaving no mark upon his body. The Haradrim hesitated another moment ere he set the knife down, again, carefully, and then began to lay out what supplies he kept in his travel pouch. There was an odd ritualism to this interaction: in Indirkan's precise, very deliberate movements, and in Aragorn's perfect stillness and silence, and neither was yet willing to say whither it led. Bandages, a vial, a strip of leather, and needle and thread appeared, and then Indirkan began to unwind the blood-stained wrappings.
Indirkan hissed as he finished stripping the bandages from the other's torso, exposing the injuries beneath. Terrible bruising spread over his left side, and a jagged slash arced from just above Khordan's navel to an abrupt point against his sternum. And Indirkan, probing as gently as he could, could see clearly where bone fragments had been sheered off by the force of the blow. Shaking his head in amazement, Indirkan glanced up at the other. "You were fortunate that your opponent's sword was blunt!" There was no easy or painless way to begin, and Indirkan knew a moment of doubt as to whether he had the skill to heal this wound. He has bled too much, and the fever is not a good sign. I can clean it and suture it, but little more, I fear. Picking up the vial, he proffered a grim smile as he handed Khordan the leather strip and waited 'til the other had it between his teeth to begin .
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