Tales of the North
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Back to Middle-earth month 2012: 4. Tales of the North
Northern Dúnedain-themed drabbles and vignettes
Rangers of the North: Fornost
"Meat. Roasted meat."
"Will you stop that? We're still over a day away from Fornost, and there will be nothing hot to eat until then."
"No! I meant I… Can't you smell that?"
"Yes. You're right. Let's go take a look."
Friend or foe, I wonder. We follow behind the captain.
A gesture, little more than a nod, and I move up beside him. The source of the smell...
Bows are drawn, arrows nocked and loosed.
I follow the captain down into the dell. As I see what the Orcs were roasting, I lose any appetite I might have had.
Rangers of the North: Fell Winter
"We will send what we can," Elrond told Arathorn, "It will be very little."
"I wasn't asking for ourselves," the Chieftain's Heir said, "But for the survivors of the floods at Tharbad. In the Angle we may recover from the Fell Winter. Tharbad is as good as gone after the meltwater washed through the town."
Elrond was already working on the logistics of sending what Imladris could spare down to the stricken town. Barges? No, the Bruinen was still too wild, from those same meltwaters. Yet, though it was little enough that could be spared, he would find a way.
Rangers of the North: Eriador
Weapons and warfare: cavalry
Rangers of the North: protectors
Rangers of the North: Arador
"My company need horses," yet another captain had argued that morning before the Council. And yet again, the answer had been 'no.'
If wishes were horses, we'd all ride, Arador thought. During the Fell Winter, the Dúnedain had eaten most of their horses, and stocks only recovered slowly. Foals needed time to grow and be trained. It would be another ten years at least before the Rangers would have any cavalry worth the name again to support them in their duty as protectors of Eriador.
Still, Arador considered, perhaps he shouldn't have dismissed the captain with a snapped "Then walk!".
Rangers of the North: Gilraen
Trying to ignore that there were people watching, Gilraen raised and tensed the bow she had borrowed from the armoury. She had come to the Rivendell archery range this morning out of some sense that she ought to practice, just as she had done at home – not that she had ever been a particularly good archer. She wasn't terrible either: more of her arrows had always hit the target than not.
As she adjusted her aim, she had to blink against tears welling up, and with a sigh of frustration she lowered the bow again.
Not all that long ago, she had stood on the range in Caras Dirnen to practice, and Arathorn, who had secretly been watching, suddenly stepped up to correct her stance. How she remembered the feel of his arms and the warmth of his body against her... Needless to say that the shot, once she had remembered to make it, had not even come close to the target, and the practice session had ended abruptly with the two of them heading for the privacy of home.
She bit back a curse she would have washed Estel's mouth out with soap for, and raised the bow again. There was no point in dwelling on the past; it was g… he was gone. Much as she missed their intimacy, she missed Arathorn more than she missed mere bedsport, as pleasant as that had been between them.
Slowly, deliberately, she drew back the string until her arms hurt and she could only just about hold the bow steady. This was what the armourer considered a light bow? Then again, to an Elf it probably was, and she adjusted her opinion of the sometimes impossibly-ethereal looking Elven women in Elrond's house. As Arathorn had shown her, she released the arrow as she exhaled. Yes! The heart of the target.
She shot a few more times, hitting at least the second ring every time.
A bit later, as she was gathering her arrows to return them to the armoury, Elrohir, who had been among the others watching, came up to her. She wondered what he wanted to say. Though she had known them for a long time, both he and his brother had barely spoken to her after they had brought her and Estel here. It did not take much to work out that they felt responsible for Arathorn's death, but from what she had heard from one of the few Dúnedain survivors, the Orc ambush had been incredibly well set up, and the twins had no cause to feel guilty.
"You shoot well," Elrohir said, barely meeting her gaze.
"Arathorn taught me," she answered. He looked away and she added, sounding almost exasperated, "Elrohir, look at me," then as he did, "I do not hold you to blame."
He only nodded, but at least he did not look away again. It was not much, but it was a beginning, she considered. If she was to live her for a long time, it would be much better if Elrohir and his brother did not flinch every time they saw her.
Rangers of the North: The Grey Company
As ceremonies went, it was not much, Halladan thought as the newest member of the Grey Company grasped his captain's hand and stood up after being sworn in. Still, he would not complain about being here to see it. Had that warg's bite gone a bit deeper, he would have been dead; had he avoided those teeth altogether, he would have been on patrol. No matter; he was alive and he was here, and it was not every day that a man witnessed his son joining the Grey Company.
"Congratulations," he said.
"Thank you, father." Halbarad's smile said it all.
Languages: learning a language
Rangers of the North: Annúminas
Weapons: guerilla warfare
"Names are funny things," Daeron mused as the small group gathered around the campfire. They had arrived at Annúminas earlier that day, and were now sitting overlooking the lake in what had once been someone's garden, glad to have reached the relative safety of the ancient city.
"How's that?" Halbarad asked.
"Many people are named after lords or heroes of old, or their name has a meaning, or both; and that's all well and good until you consider a name that means something and it stops making sense. Look at Tavor here," Daeron answered. "I have certainly never seen him bore holes in tree trunks with his beak."
"So," Tavor responded immediately, "You're called Daeron, yet you sing like a troll."
Halbarad laughed as Daeron made a disgusted noise; his brother-in-law had walked into his own trap eyes open.
"And Vardamir's named after a king of Númenor," Beleg now said, "I'm called after an Elven archer, and with Imlach, Malach, Marach, and Baran we've got a good collection of Edain names."
"You're forgetting Wulfmaer with his Rohirric name," Malach interrupted him.
"What does Wulfmaer mean anyway?" Imlach called out.
"Famous wolf," Elladan supplied.
"And of course Wulfmaer," Beleg went on, unperturbed by the interruption. Then he turned to Halbarad, a wicked gleam in his eyes, "One thing I'm wondering about, Captain, just what is that 'tall tower' you're named after?"
Halbarad merely assumed a long-suffering expression as several Rangers sniggered. The jest was scarcely new and best ignored.
"Actually, your name is not Sindarin, but Taliska," Elladan said, coming to his rescue.
Halbarad cast a surprised glance at the half-Elf. "Taliska? I never knew that."
"What's Taliska?" Beleg asked, with several of the others nodding in agreement at the question.
"Of old, the language of the Third House of the Edain," Elrohir now said.
"And you know it?" Beleg asked.
"As much as anyone can," Elrohir said. "It has not been spoken since the early days of Númenor."
"Long-dead languages," Imlach scoffed, "What's the point of learning them?"
"More than you would think," Elladan said. "No one may speak Taliska anymore, but it is related to Dunlendish, so I found it slightly easier to learn that because I had already learned Taliska."
"I suppose so," Imlach said, "But in any language there are still several hundred Orcs sitting in the Hills of Evendim."
"Thank you for reminding us," Beleg jumped in, "I'm sure we would have forgotten about them otherwise."
"I only need one volunteer for the middle watch." As Halbarad had expected, that was enough to stop both Beleg and Imlach. "Anyway, we need reinforcements from Círdan and Fornost before we can dislodge the Orcs. Elrohir, if you and your brother will go to the Havens, I'll send someone to Fornost in the morning as well."
"And we just sit here?" Imlach sounded more than a bit irritated.
"We will not," Halbarad said. "We cannot take the camp with twenty men, but we can keep them busy."
Tavor (S.): woodpecker
I've gone with the interpretation that Taliska is the language of the House of Haleth, not the Folk of Bëor (quoting Ardalambion): "In this later linguistic conception, Nóm and Nómin would be Bëorian words, but all the other words (bor and talbor and all the hal-based words) are words of the Woodmen of Brethil, so they would be Halethian. I don't know what would happen to the name "Taliska" itself under this later situation."
Horror: Thuringwethil and other vampires
Horror: Spiders, flies, and maggots
"Bed and board?" the farmer asks.
Aragorn nods. It's a fair enough price for a day's work and much the same in Harad as in Eriador, he has found. Farmers are always glad of an extra hand with their chores, and they usually can spare a bite to eat and a place to sleep – even if it's only a bed of straw in a shed. Coin, however, they are often short enough of that they cannot afford to pay wages in exchange for work. And wanderers like him are glad of good food and somewhere dry to sleep, Aragorn acknowledges.
"Do you know anything about goats?" the man asks.
"Enough," he replies. Over the years he has done more jobs around farms than he cares to think about.
There is a herd of about two hundred goats penned up in a fenced field. They will check them for maggots, and clean any infestations they find. At first Aragorn holds the goat while the farmer cleans out the wounds and applies a salve. All that the farmer says to note Aragorn's steady handling of the beasts is "You have good hands," but after that they take turns holding the goats and cleaning the wounds.
The goats are mostly white with brown and black splotches. They're small, lean, and short-haired; they are also inquisitive and nibble at everything that comes in front of them. The work is not heavy, even in the dusty heat, and there's a slightly hypnotic quality to its repetitiveness.
"Are you from up north?" the farmer asks when they take a break.
"Originally," Aragorn answers, "But lately I've been in the east." The question no longer startles him as it did the first time. He's been in Harad for close to a year now, and to these people even Umbar is far to the north – further than any of them are likely to travel. People mostly take him for an Umbarite; he does have the colouring after all.
"East, huh? I thought I heard something like that in your speech," the farmer says, but does not inquire further.
Aragorn smiles as he fends off an overfriendly kid nibbling on his shirt. He's been cultivating a Khand accent in what passes for Westron here, and so far, the deception hasn't failed him. He is glad that Elrond had him study Adûnaic as a boy; there are many words still used here that have disappeared in Eriador, and they are pronounced much closer to what Elrond had told him of Adûnaic pronunciation.
It's already late in the afternoon when Aragorn spots something odd on one nanny goat. At first it looks like another maggot site, but the wound is too small and neat-edged for that. He looks closer, thinking some other kind of parasite may have burrowed in.
"What is it?" the farmer asks.
"Look at this," Aragorn says, pointing out the wound.
The farmer takes a closer look as well, then peers at the sky and scowls. "Bats," he says, and adds, "Foul little bloodsuckers."
"Vampires?" Aragorn asks, an incongruous image of a man-sized bat swooping down to inflict these tiny bites flitting through his mind. "How big are they?"
"Nasty beasts, but no bigger than an ordinary fruitbat. They feed by sucking blood from animals, and if they can get at them, people as well," the farmer explains. "Count yourself lucky you don't have them up north. Saw someone die from a bite once."
Not like Thuringwethil at all then for size, which is a relief, but… "Really? From a wound like this?" He knows even the smallest wound can kill, but he wants to know more.
"Doesn't happen often, but this man, after he was bitten he got feverish and confused. Couldn't even swallow a drink of water. Not a good way to die. I'll have to keep this girl here isolated for a while to see if she falls ill." The farmer pats the goat on the side as he tethers her down, and they continue working in silence until all the goats have been checked. They find no further bite marks, though there are plenty of maggot infestations.
The next morning, the farmer offers him several days' work around the farm as well as asking for his help in cleaning out the caves where the bats roost. Though Aragorn has felt it is time to head home for a while, he is glad to accept, even if it is a delay. The farmer has been generous to a passing stranger and has treated him better than some around Bree.
"Soap? Do they even know what it is for?" a slurred voice called out over the noise in the Pony's common room. Laughter followed.
Hunthor's expression as he glared at the group of locals was murderous. I tightly gripped his left arm to stop him before he caused trouble. "It's only Harry Goatleaf. Don't give him the satisfaction."
"Lighten up," I said the next day as we stopped to eat. "You're not still sulking about last night, are you?"
"No," Hunthor muttered, then burst out, "Why does Butterbur scent his soap like that? I smell like a damnable cherry tree!"
Horror: psychological horror
The Black Riders bear down on us, on me. I stand still, frozen in place, as my eyes meet an unseen gaze under a black hood. I try to dodge the sword slash that sweeps down, but too late.
The blade cuts into my arm, and I drop the torch I am yet holding. I fall to my knees, clutching at the wound with my left hand. There is no blood, only an icy cold that spreads quickly.
As my sight fades, I see the Nazgûl close on the Ringbearer. One leans over to grab him off Asfaloth's back. No!
I wake up in a soft bed, heart pounding in my chest. A dream. Only a dream. Or…? Around me there is only darkness, silence. I do not remember what happened after the Nazg… Am I dead? Slain by a Morgul blade? No, it was a dream. It must be.
As I attempt to sit up, I find I am restrained. I realise that I am not lying in a bed after all, but am chained to a torturer's table.
A presence in my mind, and I recoil, fearing it is the Enemy. Now, someone calls my name, and a hand shakes my arm. I wake up again, but this time it is in my own bedroom in Rivendell, early morning sunlight streaming in through the window. Elladan is sitting by my bedside, watching me anxiously.
"You were caught in a nightmare," he says. "Frodo is safe. You are safe."
Horror: Abandoned ruins
Elladan had given Aragorn one look and told him he'd see to Roheryn for him. Elrohir had set apart a small area where he was looking after the wounded of the Grey Company, and had given him a look similar to Elladan's, telling him to rest before he fell over. Borlas had everything under control in setting up their camp, though where he'd found even one tent?
There was nothing he could do except stand and look out over the Pelennor. This is victory? It had to be, for all who still stood after battle had ceased were theirs. The bodies of the dead and dying, their own and those of their enemies, lay strewn across the Pelennor like abandoned ruins.
"Captain," Suddenly Beleg stood beside him, along with Hunthor and Gethron. "Permission to look for our fallen comrades out there."
He nodded. "Of course. I…"
Before he could finish his sentence, Beleg shook his head and briefly placed a hand on his shoulder. "No. Aragorn, go and talk to Halmir. He needs you more than the dead do."
Reluctantly, Aragorn gave his agreement and turned around. It was by now close to dark and the camp was lit by torch and fire. A few of his men were busy preparing a meal, but Aragorn doubted anyone would eat it. Weariness trumped hunger, and the smell of ashes, blood and death that hung over the battlefield took away any appetite that might remain.
Halmir sat alone, staring into the distance, his father's sword in one hand, a cleaning rag in the other. He didn't look up when Aragorn sat down next to him on what remained of a broken siege engine.
Finally, when Aragorn had almost given up hope that Halmir would speak, the younger man looked at him, raising a hand. "That is Father's blood."
Aragorn moved to put his arm around Halmir's shoulder and enfold his bloodied hand with his own. As he met Halmir's gaze, he was suddenly thankful that Halmir looked more like Dineth than like Halbarad. He doubted he could have borne seeing his friend's face in his son's right then.
Halmir shivered, and looked down again. "Uncle, what can I say to Mother?"
"We spoke last night," – had it really only been one day? Surely, it had been another Age of the World? – "Of fate, and prophecy, and kin. Tell her he thought of her before the end." If any of it were consolation, it was but bitter, but there was naught else he could offer Dineth. Or her eldest son, he thought as Halmir leant his head against his shoulder, desperately trying not to cry.
It felt like relief when a messenger came with word from Gandalf that he, and his healing skills, were needed in the White City. Healing of wounds, he might achieve, but grief was beyond anyone's skill to heal.
Isengard, in the spring of the year
Horror: Footsteps and whispers
Relationship: Death of a loved one
Horror: Mazes and labyrinths
AU - This story is set in my fluffy-wishfulfillment-verse
March FA 01 — Isengard & March TA 3019 — the Paths of the Dead
The Dark Door into the mountain loomed before him. Aragorn was frozen in place. They had to pass it, but to move against that almost tangible wall of fear… A sop to his courage, a glance revealed that all — except Legolas — were similarly afflicted, even his brothers.
Suddenly Halbarad spoke. "This is an evil door, and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless, but no horse will enter."
Whatever brought this on, Aragorn knows he is dreaming. He knows this is a nightmare. And yet, he can only go along with reliving his first passage of the Paths.
Perhaps he shouldn't have come here through the Paths, even if the Dead no longer haunt them. It is the quickest cut through the mountains when coming from Dol Amroth, though. Or perhaps Isengard itself affects him. The tower contains many things, not just the treasures hoarded by Saruman, but other, darker secrets as well.
Belowground lies a veritable labyrinth of corridors and chambers, some clearly part of the original construction, others more recent. Several chambers hold rows of bodies chained to the wall, some mummified in the dry air, some reduced to a pile of bones, all covered in mould after the flooding of the valley by the Ents. All that are recognisable are the remains of women, and by the dark strands of hair that are found, likely Dunlending. It does not take a great leap of imagination to conclude that these were the women used in Saruman's half-Orc breeding programme.
Even as the truth of prophecy in his kinsman's words pierced Aragorn — knowing that he is dreaming does nothing to soften the shock — he steeled himself for what lay ahead. "But we must go in, and therefore the horses must go too. For if ever we come through this darkness, many leagues lie beyond, and every hour that is lost there will bring the triumph of Sauron nearer. Follow me!"
The part of him that is anchored in the present counts them as they go in, those that yet live and those that have fallen both. Halbarad first, Halmir close behind him, followed by Borlas, Hunthor, Beleg, all of the Grey Company, and Elladan and Elrohir bringing up the rear but for Legolas and Gimli.
Inside, the feeling of fear was no less paralysing for all that they were moving. The torches Aragorn had brought did little to alleviate the darkness that pressed down on them. Inevitably he thought of Moria, both the crossing with the Fellowship and his long-ago foray with Halbarad. Those, too, had been dark passages, but there the threat had been different; there was no terror in the dark itself.
Now, the fear that before had attempted to keep them out crept inside a man's soul, whispering softly in strange words. Yet Aragorn knew what they spoke of; dying alone in the dark, forever joining the Dead on the Paths. Behind them, footsteps followed, softly, almost on the edge of hearing, but enough to know that, yes, the Dead were following.
He knows what to expect next, though time in the dream is unreliable — or perhaps memory plays him false — for the moment seems to come much sooner than it had done in reality.
After some time, they entered a large cave, and as Aragorn raised his torch in the hope of seeing more, a sudden gleam of light on metal drew him. Close to the wall of the cave a body was lying. Clad in the garb of the Grey Company, the man lay face-down, one desiccated hand reaching towards the stone door before him.
No, Aragorn thinks, puzzled, this is not what happened! But the dream inexorably draws him back in.
Aragorn handed his torch to Elrohir who had followed closely behind, and knelt down next to the dead man. Slowly, he reached to turn him over, and gasped in shock as he recognised the face before him, marked as it was by death and long years in the dry air of this cave. Halbarad. No! Aragorn sprang to his feet as suddenly all went dark. It was dark enough that he might as well be blind, and he silently cursed at himself for handing his torch to Elrohir.
That last dream thought makes so little sense that Aragorn can only laugh at it, and that seems to be enough to allow him to wake up. Shaken, he rises from the bed and grabs a cloak, quickly heading outside. It is still dark, and the only ones awake in their camp are the guards. He raises a hand in greeting as one sentry notices him. He needs fresh air, and to stand underneath the stars for a while. By the time he feels he can go back to sleep without being returned to the nightmare the sky is starting to lighten in the East.
It is perhaps unavoidable that he oversleeps in the morning, and he is woken up with the news that there is a message for him. He quickly dresses, and one of the sentries enters.
"My lord. The Steward should be here in less than an hour."
He thanks the man and instructs him to show the Steward in as soon as he arrives.
"I expected you days ago. What took you so long?" He attempts to sound stern, but knows the attempt is doomed.
"Ordering your kingdom, if you please, my lord Elessar." The words are delivered with a grin, taking any sting from them. In a slightly more serious tone, "Your visit to Edoras did go well?"
"I changed my plans. As I started from Dol Amroth, it made better sense to come here first and visit Éomer on the way back to Minas Tirith."
A searching look and a drawn-out pause. "You came here directly from Dol Amroth… The Paths?"
He only nods in confirmation. Changing the topic, he asks, "How fares the North Kingdom?"
"Well enough," Halbarad replies, "Though there are still many Orcs in the Misty Mountains and the Rangers need to patrol more after so many Elves left with Elrond. Elladan and Elrohir send their greetings, and want to let you know they'll travel south later in the year."
Aragorn smiles at the latter news. He decides they will discuss Arnor later. He is still shaken from his dream, and would rather first speak of personal matters before they return to their duties. "And how fare you?"
"Well enough," Halbarad repeats, but from his expression Aragorn knows life is much better than 'well enough'. Halbarad goes on. "Halmir finally married Lossiel last month, and he wants to know if your offer of a place in your guard in Minas Tirith is still open. He'd like to spend a few years there."
"Yes, if you can spare him." Aragorn replies.
"I want him to take on the captaincy of the Grey Company, but he believes he is not yet ready. Daeron is willing to continue leading the Grey Company, and he's a good captain, so yes, I can spare Halmir for now. And Haldan has his Ranger star," Halbarad goes on, beaming with paternal pride, "Dineth is torn between worrying about him and being pleased that I am in Caras Dirnen so much more than before."
Life is good to his kinsman then, Aragorn concludes. Halbarad is observing him intently, and asks, "But what about you? There seems to be a darkness weighing on your mind."
Aragorn sighs. Halbarad knows him too well, and he has as much chance to dissemble to him as to his brothers. "I had a bad dream last night, and its shadow is proving difficult to shake off. But I'd rather not talk about it."
"As you wish," Halbarad replies, adding sternly, "For now." He goes on to ask, "Then how is your exploration of Isengard going?"
"I've learned much about the tower, and about Saruman's mind," Aragorn says, "And many treasures will be returned to Rohan and elsewhere as a result. But there are things I must show you."
Halbarad follows him into the tower and the main chamber. "What is it?" he asks as he sees the pile of treasure that lies in the middle of the chamber.
"It's not here," Aragorn answers. "Down this corridor, there is a hidden door that would not have been discovered but for Gimli's aid. Come, follow me."
Now that he knows the door's secret, Aragorn opens it easily. "The first thing we found in here is this," and he holds out a small case of gold on a thin chain. "I think Saruman had this made to hold the One Ring, should he ever have gotten hold of it."
Halbarad's expression is troubled, but he says nothing.
"The second," Aragorn reaches up to take something from its shelf, "Is this. The first Elendilmir." They watch in reverent silence as the jewel seems almost to glow even in the faint light of the corridor.
"The original Elendilmir?" Halbarad asks after a while. "But… wasn't that lost with Isildur when he fell?"
"Yes," Aragorn says, "But it appears Saruman found it."
"Then he must have found Isildur's body as well," Halbarad says.
"So I think also, but no remains were found in here. I fear he discarded them. Worse was done here, though," and he tells Halbarad of the dungeons he found in the labyrinth of corridors under the tower.
That evening, after a day of talking politics and exploring the tower, Aragorn sits talking with Halbarad and Gimli on a low bench outside his tent.
"Do you know what the hobbits call the houses that were built to replace Bagshot Row in Hobbiton after the Troubles?" Gimli says.
From the grin on his face, it's clear to Aragorn that Halbarad knows the answer, but his kinsman says nothing. "No, but do tell me," Aragorn replies to Gimli.
"Well, officially it's called New Row, but in Bywater they call it Sharkey's End."
They all laugh out loud, though Halbarad mutters darkly that even that is more honour than the wizard deserves.
= = = =
The conversation between Aragorn and Halbarad is quoted from The Return of the King — The Passing of the Grey Company, which I also used for the description of the Paths of the Dead. Further sources for this chapter are Unfinished Tales — The Disaster of the Gladden Fields, and The Return of the King — The Grey Havens.
The first story in the fluffy-wishfulfillment-verse is Dark is the Path
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