Many Guises and Many Names
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Rangers of the North: 6. Arnost, Fortress of the Kings
The villa lost its dreamlike quality when seen by daylight. The merciless morning sun showed the tracks worn by generations of feet into tesselated floors with many missing tiles and the faded, cracked frescoes on the walls. Elegant furnishings of earlier times, crafted of fine woods and inlaid with precious stones and metals, mingled with later pieces of humbler provenance though still shapely and well made. The gardens though filled with rare trees and flowers, were overgrown and untended. The statues and many fountains chipped and broken.
It reminded Hurin of the down at heel villas that could still be found in Anorien and Lebennin but on a grander scale for this had been the home of Kings - and was still home to those Kings' descendants. The massive walls and the presence of the silent, watchful Rangers bespoke a people under seige. As was Gondor.
"Remember what Hawkeye said about our common blood and common foe. Surely there's some way we can help each other." Hurin argued as he and Cemendur walked together in the garden.
"It would be easier if their Chief were not of the blood of the Kings." the Councillor replied grimly. "The Heirs of Isildur can scarcely be expected to serve under Men of lesser lineage."
"Thorongil does." Hurin countered. "He must be close kin to Armegil, perhaps even his son, yet he has sworn himself to Lord Ecthelion...." his voice trailed off as the irony of it registered.
Cemendur nodded. "You see? even if they are willing to forgo their rights - and why should they be? - how can we ever forget who they are?"
Hurin swallowed, the Councillor was right. The mere presence of an Heir to the Kings, whether he pressed his claim or not, would be a constant rub to the conscience of Gondor. A reproach to her people and especially to the House of the Stewards. Yet to accept the Heir of Isildur as king would mean that Pelendur and Mardil had been wrong to withold the crown from Arvedui and Aranarth and that the Ruling Stewards, who included many great and noble men, had been nothing more than usurpers.
Hurin was himself of the line of Mardil son of Emeldir, Ecthelion's elder daughter, and third in line after Denethor and his small son Boromir for the Stewards' chair. His ancestors had ruled Gondor honorably and well for nearly a thousand years. To put such a shame upon them was unthinkable, and yet... "What are we going to do?"
"I do not know, Hurinya, I do not know." ******************************************
They were sitting in an arbor, turned into a green cave by the vines and brambles that covered and almost overwhelmed it, when Hawkeye found them. he had managed to look notably royal in rough Ranger garb well begrimed with travel but now, dressed in black velvet surcoat over a forest green tunic patterned with leaves of gold, he was a veritable vision of the majesty of the Kings of Men, bringing Hurin and Cemendur to their feet staring.
The looks on their faces made him laugh out loud, softening and warming that grim, sculpted countenance in a way that reminded Hurin sharply of Thorongil and the startling effect of his rare smile. The Gondor Men recollected themselves enough to bow and that seemed to amuse the Ranger too.
"The Chief will speak to you now if you will."
Wordless Cemendur indicated assent.
Hawkeye led them back into the Hall and opened the door Laebeth had gone through the night before. They followed him through a square antechamber, lined with doors and carved stone benches, into what was clearly a throne room. Though one less like the chilling splendours of the Hall of the Kings back home could scarcely be imagined.
It was about half the size of the Great Hall, its long walls decorated with frescoes of the rolling seas both in sunlight and in storm. The floor and high vaulted ceiling were covered with the same intricate richly hued traceries as adorned the Hall. A shaft of light fell through a high window upon a star set above the throne, flanked by two lower seats for the Consort and the Heir, all three of ivory inlaid with silver like the star. But no, common silver never sparkled so, it must be true silver - mithril.
Hawkeye walked briskly the length of the room to a discrete door behind the dais. As he passed the thrones Hurin saw they were thick with dust, unused for years, perhaps centuries.
Armegil awaited them in a small, plain workaday room with maps pinned to the walls and light streaming through a many paned window embrasure. The Chief Ranger stood behind a littered writing table looking stunningly like Thorongil in grey and silver, the hues the Captain usually wore. The colors, Hurin suddenly remembered, of the Kings of Old.
Beside Armegil was a swarthy, bearlike Man clad in brown surcoat over scarlet tunic who glowered at the Gondor Men from beneath beetled brows. Definately not Dunedain, nor very friendly.
The Chief acknowledged their bows and sat in his high backed chair gesturing for them to take the low seats before his table. The bearlike Man settled himself on the bench under the window.
"There were things you wished to say to me, Lord Cemendur. I am prepared to listen." "Hurin and I have already said something of these matters to -" Cemendur hesitated, turned to Hawkeye, "Forgive me, my Lord, I know not what to call you."
"He is Belecthor son of Belegorn," Armegil answered with a hint of a smile. "My sister-son and Captain of the South." nodded towards the large, frowning Man in the window bay. "And this is Borondir son of Borthandir, Lord of the Marches of Rhudaur and Captain of the East."
"And you are Isildur's Heir." it was not a question. But Armegil shook his head. "No. I am but the next in blood, his chief lieutenant and Captain of the North. Aragorn, son of my brother Arathorn, is the Heir of Isildur. I stand in his place in his absence.
Cemendur's face went blank with shock.
A shiver went down Hurin's spine. Thorongil, it had to be, but why in the name of all the Valar would Isildur's Heir come to Gondor in disguise to take service as a common soldier?
There was a soft rap on the door and it opened to admit a little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, with long black hair falling straight down her back over a soft grey gown. She held carefully in both hands a large silver tray with five matching goblets. The sunlight reflected off the metal casting a bright light onto her small, serious, delicate face with great grey eyes that shone brighter than the silver.
'Fair as a Elven child.' Hurin had heard a city matron say once about his younger sister. It was a common compliment but now he was seeing the reality. For a moment he wondered wildly if perhaps she *was* an Elf but Armegil quickly disabused him of that idea.
"My daughter Niphredil."
The child placed her burden on the table before her father and the woman at her heels stepped forward, a tall silver wine pitcher in her hands.
It took Hurin a startled second glance to recognize Laebeth, hair unbraided and rippling down her back, dressed in a pale blue gown that matched her eyes. She caught him staring and nodded politely with just a hint of a dimple.
The little girl gazed fixedly first at Hurin and then at Cemendur as Laebeth poured the wine and passed it round. Then she took the child firmly by the shoulders, turned her around and steered her out of the room.
"She is very beautiful." Cemendur said sincerely after the door had shut behind them.
"And very willful." was the father's rueful answer. "The two tend to go together in our House."
"Indeed they do!" fervently from Belecthor.
Borondir laughed heartily and a quick smile flashed across Armegil's face like a sunburst before it settled again into the grim lines etched by hardship and care.
"Forgive the interuption, my Lord. You were saying?"
The Councillor swallowed and forged on. "I told the Lord Belecthor how a great Captain had come to us out of Rohan but clearly was one of our own people though not of Gondor. We called him Thorongil but he ever refused to give us either his own true name or that of his homeland."
"For good reason." quietly from Armegil.
"For reasons that seemed good to him." Cemendur conceeded. "My lord, Gondor is hard pressed. The Lord Aragorn was proof other Men of our kind still dwelt somewhere in Middle Earth. The Lost Realm was the obvious place to look for them."
"And now you have found us." said Armegil expressionlessly.
"And seen you are also in peril." Hurin broke in, stomping all over Cemendur's careful diplomacy. "Hawkeye - my Lord Belecthor - has told us why you hide yourselves. True a few thousands cannot challenge the might of Mordor but allied with such strength as we still have in Gondor surely together we can accomplish what neither can alone!"
Again Armegil shook his head. "The time when our people could overcome the Shadow by force of arms is long passed. Even united we can no longer match the numbers of his vassals."
"Do you bid us despair then, Lord?" flatly from Cemendur as Hurin bit his lip.
"Never that!" his answer came quick and emphatic. "Our part is to hold doom at bay as long as we may. But it is by other, smaller hands, Sauron will be brought low."
"I - do not understand, my Lord." Cemendur said uncertainly.
Another brief, flashing smile. "Nor do I. And what I guess I may not speak of." turned the subject. "You are somewhat mistaken, my Lord Hurin, we were not driven to this life, we chose it." he took a sip of his wine and continued. "You know of course of the last war in which Angmar was overthrown with the aid of Gondor. But that was not the first time the Witch King had been defeated. Twice before we broke his power and drove him from the North, at great cost, only to see him rise again in even greater strength as our own diminished."
Hurin shivered again. Gondor was only to well acquainted with such profitless victories.
"It was King Araphant who discovered who our enemy in truth was; the Chief of the Nazgul greatest of Sauron's servants. And realized the Dark Lord himself was behind our troubles, and yours in Gondor as well. So he made an alliance with King Ondoher, sealed by the marriage of our Prince Arvedui to your Princess Firiel, against the evil day when Angmar would rise again. With what result you know."
Indeed they did.
"We might have rebuilt after that last victory, as after the two before it." Armegil went on. "But Aranarth realized to do so would be to invite another attack, and another, and another, until at last we were utterly destroyed." A smile, this time a grim one with an edge of steel. "Sauron does not forget the hand that cut the Ring from his finger and Isildur's Heirs account his enmity our greatest glory.
"Thus Aranarth chose to let the Witch King believe he had succeeded in the task his Master had set him. He built this fastness, and others, and our people went into hiding becoming Rangers of the Wild, hunting the servants of the Enemy and standing guard over the simple folk of the North."
He took another sip of wine, resumed quietly. "It is a hard life and our numbers dwindle as the years lengthen, yet for all that we are still far more than a few thousands. But to declare ourselves openly would only bring ruin upon us and those whom we guard. And an alliance with Gondor would call the full fury of Mordor down upon us both. This we will not risk but we do not forget our kinship or our duty under the treaty Araphant made. Aragorn is not the first Heir of Isildur to serve Gondor."
Hurin and Cemendur could only stare at him.
"Arangil, brother of Aranarth, led a company of Rangers south when the Nazgul attacked Minas Ithil. And later Arminas, son of our Seventh Chieftain, served Denethor and Boromir in the Morgul wars. But since his time we have been too hard pressed ourselves to send aid to Gondor. Until Aragorn chose to go alone more than twenty years ago."
"Your generosity shames us." Cemendur said heavily.
Armegil shook his head. "We but keep our sworn word, as did King Earnil. In return we ask that you keep our secret, for all our sakes."
The Councillor bowed his head. "As you wish."
Borondir grunted. "That may be all the Dunedain ask but the Men of Rhudaur would ask one more thing; send us back our Chieftain! He has been away from his people long enough and too long."
"I do not doubt Aragorn will return when he may." Armegil told him. Glanced at Cemendur. "I trust no rub will be put in his way?"
"We must tell our Lord what we have learned." the Councillor replied. "But I promise you he will do the Lord Aragorn no harm, nor seek to stay him when he choses to leave us."
Armegil and Belecthor accepted that assurance but Borondir looked openly skeptical. Hurin would have been insulted, had he not had to admit to himself that the Man's doubts were justified. The Stewards' had not dealt justly with the Heirs of Isildur and they all knew it.
Armegil rose and the others with him.
Cemendur essayed a pallid smile. "It seems we have come a long way to little purpose."
Armegil looked at him straight, the light in his eyes very bright. "We are matched against a foe beyond our strength, but such has ever been the fate of Men. So fight on, and hold to hope, and remember you do not fight alone."
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